The 2019 Orca Awards

Welcome to the 2019 Orca Awards, the ninth(!) annual celebration of outstanding achievement in crossword puzzle construction and editing! As in past years there will be Orcas for each of ten categories, including Best Crossword, Best Clue, and Constructor of the Year. This year’s post is a little longer than most years, largely because we wanted to be more inclusive and shower a little more love on some deserving constructors and editors. If you’re interested in reading more about some of the superb puzzles from 2019, join us after the jump!

As usual, we’ll talk about the winners and nominees in each of the categories, but this year there’s an additional Honorable Mention section for some of the categories. In some cases there were just so many great puzzles that even creating the short list was painful–not to mention picking an overall winner! (Wait, I think I just mentioned it.) In any case, it felt right to give some of the puzzles that barely missed the cut a little recognition.

Before we start with the awards, we need to remind everyone of the process. The nominees for each of the puzzle categories came from several sources, including the daily star ratings from readers on this site. But not all of the puzzles considered were reviewed or rated on this blog. Winners are selected by a committee consisting of this post’s writer, his two dogs, and, on occasion, a coin flip. The committee solved a little over 1,800 puzzles to come up with this list—many not even reviewed on this site—but even then there were puzzles from other sources that were probably also excellent and deserving of mention in this post. In other words, some really fine puzzles from great constructors will no doubt go unmentioned herein. The Orcas do not pretend to be scientific or “accurate” to any extent. They’re just intended to extend kudos to some outstanding work by top-notch puzzle writers and editors. So let’s get to it!

Best Easy Crossword of 2019: Untitled, by Zhouqin Burnikel (NYT, May 15)

BEST EASY CROSSWORD OF 2019: Untitled, by Zhouqin Burnikel (NYT, May 15). The long central Down is CROSS DRESSING, clued as [“Mrs. Doubtfire” plot device – or what the letters in this clue’s answer do five times?]. Sure enough, this revealer passes through the names of five salad dressings, where in each case the dressing word is part of a longer entry that uses that word in a different way. Thus, as you can see from the screenshot to the right, CROSS DRESSING intersects JAILHOUSE ROCK, HAIL CAESAR, DUDE RANCH, RUSSIAN MOB, and THE ITALIAN JOB.

Notice that the five longer Across entries containing the salad dressings are placed symmetrically in the grid. This is precision construction at its finest, folks. Having a 13 cross two more 13s, two 10s, and a 9 in exact locations is a helluva constraint, but the grid is so dang smooth you don’t even notice all of the engineering that went into this as you solve. That’s 63 theme squares, where one of the longest theme entries crosses the other five at symmetric points! And the grid sports a healthy number of 7s and 8s to boot. This is one of Zhouqin’s best puzzles ever, and that’s saying something.

Other nominees, in order of publication:

Untitled, by Evan Mahnken (NYT, July 3). Another puzzle with long, intersecting theme entries. Here the revealer was FINGERS CROSSED, and the other four theme entries contained the names of fingers. True to the revealer, the fingers cross, as LET FREEDOM RING and A LITTLE BIT cross at the I, while MIDDLE MAN and PRICE INDEX cross that the D. Toss in some interesting fill like PARENTHOOD, LADIES ONLY, GOT AN A, and UV EXPOSURE, and you have yourself a very lively easy crossword.

“Team Spirit,” by Erik Agard (Universal, July 25). This puzzle cleverly uncapitalized professional sports team names and tied them to appropriate descriptions unique to their locations. Thus, the [New York giants] are SKYSCRAPERS, the [Miami heat] are CROCKETT AND TUBBS, the [Las Vegas aces] are POKER PROS, and the [Los Angeles dodgers] are STUNTPEOPLE. Notice we sample from three sports and four leagues. Simple theme, flawlessly executed.

“O Whatever!,” by Joanne Sullivan (The Inkubator, August 1). Five common expressions beginning with O are re-imagined as odes. Thus, for example, ORANGE CRUSH becomes O, RANGE CRUSH, an [Ode to a cowgirl’s sweetheart?]. There’s also an [Ode to a vintage Times Square sign] with O, NEON ONE, an [Ode to and] in O, B.S. CURES, an [Ode to a new pate receipe] in O, LIVER TWIST, and an [Ode to Porky and Petunia’s nuptials] in O, PEN MARRIAGE. A very cute idea, with bonus points for having some fun with a crossword staple like ODE.

Untitled, by Julie Bérubé (NYT, October 15). Five long Across entries contain a repeated three-letter animal. MAN-TO-MAN TALK has two ANTs, and PASS-FAIL CLASSES has two ASSes. There’s two BEEs in BEEP-BEEP, two CATs in CATCH AS CATCH CAN, and two RATs in TORA TORA TORA. Consistent with the themed of “paired” animals, you even find an ARK in the upper-right corner. There’s cool fill like SPACE RACE, FURBY, and DEAD TIRED too. Not all animals come in pairs, though: the grid also contains a lone NEWT, CAMEL, BISON, KOALA, COW, SHREW, and SHEEP. Now that’s commitment to a theme!

Untitled, by Lynn Lempel (NYT, December 2). The revealer sits along the right-hand side of the puzzle, at 28-Down. It’s LOWER THE BAR, clued as [Reduce one’s standards, as illustrated, respectively, in 3-, 5-, 7-, 40- and 28-Down]. That leads solvers to realize, likely for the first time, that the trigram BAR trickles down from the top of the third column in BARE MINIMUM three places down to RED BARON, then three more places down to LIONEL BARRYMORE, and then three places from the bottom in CABARETS before hitting the bottom of the grid in LOWER THE BAR. This is a variation of THE DESCENT OF MAN puzzle we saw from Mary Lou Guizzo and Jeff Chen back in 2014, but there it was a mid-week puzzle. Here Lynn made the puzzle Monday-accessible, another great starter to crossword noobs hooked. And because it’s a Lynn Lempel puzzle, you already know it’s interesting and devoid of clutter.

Honorable Mentions for Best Easy Crossword of 2019: “All Pros” by Zhouqin Burnikel (WSJ, January 30) reparsed six words starting with FOR as two-word entries, so FORTRESSES became FOR TRESSES, clued as [In favor of Rapunzel?]. On the same day, Emily Carroll’s NYT puzzle used FRUITLESS as a great revealer for this nice find: four two-word terms where the first word is a fruit and the second word is a synonym for “departs” (GRAPE LEAVES, BANANA SPLITS, LEMON DROPS, and ORANGE PEELS). Ross Trudeau’s NYT from February 13 visually depicted a rare PLANETRAY ALIGNMENT, placing five terms containing planets (like NO OVEN USE and TAKES A TURN) and the sun aligned in the middle of the grid (and in proper order). In their February 18 NYT, Leslie Rogers and Andrea Carla Michaels found three two-word terms containing a CAP AND GOWN: NIGHT NIGHT (night cap, night gown), WHITE WEDDING (white cap, wedding gown), and the vegetarian spaghetti topper, MUSHROOM BALL (mushroom cap, ball gown). Byron Walden doesn’t make many easy puzzles, but in “Putting On Some Weight” (AVCX, February 20) he inserts units of weight into well-known entries for great result (like ANNOUNCE LANDERS and SANTA ANAGRAM), all in a grid with only 70 words that also includes gems like CAN’T MISS, EVEN TRADE, CANOODLE, PLAZA SUITE, and PITCH A TENT. Daniel Larsen’s NYT puzzle from March 19 featured common terms containing alphabetic sequences (EASY AS ABC, MOS DEF, WEIGH-IN, DJ KHALED, FILM NOIR, BACKUP QB, PR STUNT, UV WAVE, and XYZ AFFAIR) placed symmetrically in the grid from top to bottom so that the entire alphabet appears in order. Gary Larson’s “In Name Only” (Universal, May 25) reinterprets the names of five famous people, so HOLLY HUNTER is [One searching for yuletide greenery] and WILL SMITH is an [Estate crafter]. In their July 2 Universal crossword, “Site-Seeing in France,” Sara Nies and Lynn Lempel cleverly replaced words in four phrases with French cities that are homophones, yielding BREST FEEDS, TOURS OPERATOR, CANNES OPENERS, and LILLE WOMEN in a grid so smooth you can practically see your reflection. Tracy Gray’s NYT puzzle from August 5 used the revealer DOWNWARD DOG to note that the ends of the other four long Down answers (SHADOW BOXER, LASER POINTER, THE GOOD SHEPHERD, and CHEMISTRY LAB) contained dog breeds. Evan Kalish’s NYT from August 20 used a straightforward golf theme (TEE SHIRT, ROUGH RIDER, BUNKER HILL, GREEN SALAD, CUP OF COCOA), but really shined in the nonthematic fill department with goodies like AVICII, ST. PADDY, ON THE D.L., OH STOP, SPRITZ, and CARDI B. Speaking of nice fill, “Championship Run,” the August 26 puzzle in the WSJ by Trent H. Evans, featured a tennis theme (POINT THE WAY, GAME THE SYSTEM, SET A PRECEDENT, and MATCHMAKERS) but really sparkled with HOT WATER, MALL SANTAS, BETA TEST, I CHOKED, BOTTOM LINE, and SHE SHEDS. Erik Agard’s NYT from October 1 highlighted four answers containing OPPOSITES on each end (WELL DRILL, UNDERCOVER, OFF-SEASON, and WET LAUNDRY, together with great clues like [Hippo campus?] for ZOO and [General whose orders are sometimes carried out?] for TSO. Finally, Daniel Mauer made it rhyme time in the November 25 NYT, with the entertaining SNACK ATTACK, BACK ON TRACK, CRACK IS WACK, and YACKETY YACK.

BEST CLUE NOMINEES: Just as the Oscars broadcast samples the various nominees for Best Original Song before announcing the winner, this year’s Orcas post will preview all of the nominees for Best Clue by letting you, the reader, have a go at solving them before we unveil the answers (and winner) below.

Here are this year’s nominees for Best Clue of 2019. For each, we supply enumerations for the answers to help you out. If you’re not familiar with enumeration conventions, “(11)” would mean the answer is one word that is eleven letters long, like ENUMERATION. “(3,5)” means the answer has two words, the first of which has three letters and second of which has five letters, like TWO WORDS. Remember, this category awards creativity, not repetition, so you won’t find “[John Lennon’s love] (4,3)” among the contenders.

  • [List of things to try?] (6)
  • [Refuse to tap out] (5)
  • [Launching pad?] (7,4)
  • [Brand for the rest of the people?] (5)
  • [Moves in for a short time?] (5,5)
  • [Upshot?] (6,5)
  • [May through mid-July 2019] (5,8)
  • [One in a semi circle?] (4)
  • [Synagogue props] (5,3)
  • [Toy made with no plastic junk?] (3)

Again, the answers (and the winner) appear later in this post.

Best Freestyle Puzzle of 2019: “Aries Freestyle #2.40,” by Caitlin Reid (Aries Puzzles, October 2)

BEST FREESTYLE CROSSWORD OF 2019: “Aries Freestyle #2.40,” by Caitlin Reid (Aries Puzzles, October 2). Caitlin Reid, one of the rising stars of the biz, shines in this guest spot in Andrew Ries’s weekly freestyle puzzle. The grid layout is pretty conventional, with its index fingers and middle fingers flanking a diagonal of black squares from the top left to the bottom right. But the entries really shine. That northwest corner is jaw-dropping, with GOLD STARS, the ERIE CANAL and TAKE A HIKE feeding the crossing GET A SAY, ORAL EXAM, and LIKE LIKE (the latter just so fun and conversational). That’s exceptional craftspersonship.

Other great long entries include STREAKER, DIET COLA, and FAKE TATTOOS. And none of the other entries show wear and tear from all that goodness. Even the shorter stuff sings: NOT ME, MEET UP, POINT A, SWOLE. Absolutely zero dreck in this shiner! Kudos to Andrew Ries, the “A. Ries” in Aries Puzzles, for securing publishing dibs on this outstanding themeless!

Other nominees, in order of publication:

Untitled, by Sam Trabucco (NYT, January 12). Only 62 answers in the grid (usually a sign of compromised fill), but oh how they play well together. The wide-open midsection crosses PUT ON A CLINIC, I’M SPEECHLESS, DRAMA COACHES, and the MIRACLE ON ICE, surrounded by HOME CARE, THE ESPYS, and BREECHES. The lower-right corner stack of NFC TEAM, ZIRCONIA, I COULDN’T, and TEMPESTS is just awesome. The black square arrangement divides the grid into five discrete mini-puzzles, but with enough openings from one section to the next that no one area feels choked off. A beautiful construction that set the tone for a year of fine puzzles by Sam.

“AVCX Themeless #35,” by Wyna Liu (AVCX, January 16). Now here’s how to make a debut! This freestyle puzzle simply brings it. IT’S ALIVE shines at 1-Across, but it’s also just the start. KINDA-SORTA, I’M ALL OUT OF IDEAS, TRUST NO ONE, SO THAT’S IT, ADORKABLE, KIMYE, WESTEROS—this puzzle just lights up the room and commands attention. It was the first of four themeless puzzles from Wyna in 2019, and we’re hoping this was the start of what proves to be a long and prolific puzzle-making career.

Untitled, by Kevin Adamick (NYT, April 20). The grid here is much more closed-off, but that’s because every corner of contains a 6×6 space of nothing but white squares. Every. Single. Corner. The 60-word offering qualifies as a “stunt grid,” sure, but when the worst entry in any of those corners is REALER, and when those corners include goodies like DOG TIRED, A DRIVE, HECKLERS, BOY’S CLUB, ATE ALIVE, CRANKS UP, and ROLL OVER? Well, that’s damn impressive. The cluing was terrific too. A favorite: [One after another?] for ELEVEN.

Untitled, by Robyn Weintraub (NYT, June 21). I think I read somewhere (the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Group on Facebook? An interview? Somewhere else?) that Robyn, unlike many established themeless crossword constructors, does not start with “seed entries” around which she builds the rest of the grid. Instead, she prefers to work a grid from section to section and not let any one entry have too much control. Make the words fit the puzzle, not the other way around. This might explain why she’s among the most beloved themeless constructors, because her grids always show this corner-to-corner attention to detail. This one has a ton of fun entries (GROUP PHOTO, READY OR NOT, DON’T BE MAD, ON THE DOT, MARRY ME, URBAN LEGEND, AVANT GARDE, SIMON SAYS, SPY CAMS, BY ANY MEANS, FAMILY TREE, etc.), but absolutely nothing suggesting all that goodness was at all forced. You could make a case that this was the best freestyle crossword of the year and you would not be wrong. What a great year for themeless puzzles!

“AVCX Themeless #41,” by Paolo Pasco (AVCX, August 14). This 70-word gem combines almost too much goodness into the midsection, with I CAN RELATE, GUESS NOT, FLAVORTOWN, MEAL PREP, and HERSTORY all swirling around there. The other fill contains a sweet mix of decades past (RANCE Howard, HESTER Prynne) and recently-passed (REKT, Billy on the STREET), and manages aslo to name-check Gandra DEE from “DuckTales.” What’s not to love?

Untitled, by Anne and Daniel Larsen (NYT, September 13). A rollicking good time throughout this 72-word grid. Just from the first three Downs (ACT OF GOD next to ROID RAGE and CUREALLS) solvers knew this was going to be a joyride. The next corner has THAT’S ODD, HER HONOR, and GOOBERS crossing HEX SIGNS and THE POOR. Head down to the southeast for another interesting stacking of EGG SALAD, FLAT TIRE, and SET SHOTS, all three crossing YELLOW VESTS and (a personal fave) BAD ART. Throw in some of the fun stuff from the other corner (ED O’NEILL, FANTAILS, BAY AREA, ROLL CALL), together with the FRAPPUCCINO crossing the three great early Downs already mentioned, and you have an entertaining puzzle from stem to stern. Then go looking around the shorter entries for the compromises and you have … well … none. You might call AGASP fusty, but that would say more about you than the puzzle. The repeated THEs in THE O.C. and THE POOR? Hardly a sin. Face it: it’s the model of a modern major themeless.

Untitled, by Neil Padrick Wilson (NYT, November 9). The best triple-stack of the year might well be in this puzzle’s northeast corner, where SNOOZEFEST sits on NO PROBLEMO, which in turns sits on UTTER BORES. Not only are all of the crossings solid, many are swanky (ZORRO MASK, NOT US, FLOAT PLANE, and a personal fave, SNUCK). Other great entries include STANDING O, SACRE BLEU, I-PHONE APP, I HAD A BLAST, SUPERFREAK, and IT FIGURES.

Honorable Mentions for Best Freestyle Crossword of 2019: Jim Horne and Jeff Chen got the year off to a great start with their January 11 NYT puzzle featuring a CAMERA-SHY / TALES OF WOE / OP-ED COLUMN stack along with PURPLE HAZE, MBA STUDENT, IN NAME ONLY, SPORTS BRAS, the MARS LANDER and PLAYED GOD. Andrew J. Ries’s freestyle offerings are consistently outstanding, and his “Aries Freestyle #3.5 (from January 30), is representative of the quality we expect, with stacks like SCAPEGOAT / EL SEGUNDO / LIPTON TEA and SHOCK VALUE / CAR DEALERS / ANGIE’S LIST. Sam Trabucco again made low-word-count puzzles look easy with his March 9 NYT that still managed to include a host of gems like INBOX ZERO, ALRIGHTY THEN, VIENNA COFFEE, EGO TRIP, ONLINE TV, AFTER SIX, IT’S A LIE, and THE CONGA. Andy Kravis and Erik Agard teamed up for a delightful Saturday in their January 26 LAT that had tons of great entries topped by a triple-stack of WNBA DRAFT, AIR GUITAR, and FREE SPACE. Under the pseudonym Garrett Estrada, Brad Wilber and Erik Agard penned a Saturday Stumper on March 16 filled with lots of great payoffs, like seeing TAILGATER as the answer to [One at a lot of parties]. David Steinberg’s 62-word NYT offering from March 23 generated quite the buzz at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, not only for its unusual left-right symmetry and sailboat-like pattern of white squares but also for a midstack of SOLID FOOD, SOBA NOODLES, HORACE GREELEY, and DISTRESSED DENIM. Wyna Liu’s “AVCX Themeless #39” from June 5 sparkled with BURY THE LEDE, SO OVER IT, P.R. NIGHTMARE, and CAT PEOPLE. Caitlin Reid’s NYT from June 14 had an amazing corner with I GOT DIBS atop NO REASON atop SOB STORY, not to mention goodies like HARD PASS, WINK WINK, DEAD SEXY and SHAM MARRIAGES [brilliantly clued as “Actors’ unions?]. Patrick Berry’s “The Weekend Crossword: Friday, September 20, 2019” in The New Yorker was fantastic even by his standards, especially its clue for ROTISSERIE: [One that turns chicken when the heat’s on]. And his “The Weekend Crossword: Friday, November 15, 2019” was this site’s highest-rated themeless puzzle from all of 2019, likely due to fun stuff like I’M IN NO MOOD, MEMORY FOAM (clued as [It’s impressed when people lie]), DIRT DEVIL, and CAR STEREO (clued as [Travelling player?]).

Best Sunday-Sized Crossword of 2019: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” by Evan Birnholz (WP, April 21)

BEST SUNDAY-SIZED CROSSWORD OF 2019: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” by Evan Birnholz (Washington Post, April 21). To commemorate Earth Day, Evan penned this eco-conscious masterpiece featuring not one, not two, but three different themes, each based on one component of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra. The “reduce” theme entries take the form of rebus squares containing synonyms for “waste:” (JUNK) DEALER crossing (JUNK)ET, (SCRAP)E TOGETHER crossing (SCRAP)LE, and (TRASH) COLLECTOR crossing HEA(T RASH). By consolidating the waste words into single squares, the amount of “waste” is “reduced.” To grok the gimmick, Evan buried hints in the clues. (JUNK) DEALER, for example, was clued as [Person selling discarded objects (reduced waste)], and (SCRAP)E TOGETHER was clued as [Amass with difficulty, as money (reduced waste)].

The “reuse” theme entries contain phrases in which a common food container appears consecutively (i.e., it is “reused”): CANCAN DANCERS, JAR JAR BINKS, and TINTINNABULAR. The clues here too had hints, like [High-kicking performers (reused food container)] for the CANCAN DANCERS.

The “recycle” theme entries are anagrams of things that can be recycled: TASTE BLOOD, clued as [Experience the initial thrill of potential victory, idiomatically (recycled SODA BOTTLE)]; STIR DEBATE, clued as [Generate discussion (recycled D BATTERIES)]; and SOUPCON, clued as [Tiny bit (recycled COUPONS)]. This last gimmick is most impressive, as it could not have been easy finding recyclables that can so neatly anagram into legitimate, in-the-language words and phrases.

“Three different theme types in one puzzle” sounds like a recipe for chaos and clutter. But Evan makes it work very well. And for an added touch of elegance, the three gimmicks are presented not just symmetrically but also in order from top to bottom. That is, the first, fourth, and seventh theme answers, read from top from bottom, are from the “reduce” theme, the second, fifth, and eighth theme answers are from the “reuse” theme, and the third, sixth, and ninth theme answers are from the “recycle” set. The constraints involved in this puzzle are mind-bending.

Unsurprisingly, commenters here loved the puzzle. Seventeen readers gave the puzzle five stars, the highest percentage of five-star ratings for any Sunday-sized puzzle from 2019.

Other nominees, in order of publication:

“Life on the Edge,” by Evan Birnholz (Washington Post, June 30). In any other year, this one would likely would have grabbed the Best Sunday-Sized Crossword Orca. This was a variation of the gimmick where solvers have to add letters outside the grid’s perimeter in order to complete the puzzle. In addition to the title, two long Across entries give a hint: [Inherent behaviors . . . or what you’ll need to complete this puzzle] is ANIMAL INSTINCTS and [“What a wild scene!” . . . or what you might say after seeing what’s surrounding this puzzle] is “IT’S A ZOO OUT THERE!” As you might have guessed from those prompts, you’ll find animals hiding outside the puzzle’s border on all four sides. And there’s a nice variety of them too, what with a CAT, ZEBRA, PANDA, and ASS along the top, a HARE, OTTER, DEER, and EWE along the right-hand side, a TOAD, STORK, ADDER, and SEAL along the bottom, and a LAMB, TIGER, FROG, and BAT along the left-hand side. Filling grids where the perimeter is fixed is pretty challenging. But Evan ups the ante (more like “goes all in”), as every answer touching the border is a legitimate crossword answer with and without the animals. 1-Across, for example, is LODE, but the grid looks just fine if you ignore the outer animal, as it become ODE. For another example, the TIGER words are (T)ORE, (I)HOP, (G)ALA, (E)RIC, and (R)ANKLES. So freakin’ clever! Then there’s all of the animal-based clues scattered throughout, like [“The Very Hungry Caterpillar” author Carle for ERIC, [Like stallions] for MALE, and [One tending to shepherds] for VET. By our count, there were 15(!) such clues. It’s this attention to detail, both in grid construction and clue writing, that makes this puzzle so special.

“Flip ‘Phones,” by Emily Carroll (NYT, June 30). Wow, June 30 was a pretty day for crosswords! On the same day as Evan’s field trip at the zoo, we got this fun mashup where two-syllable words get paired with their syllabic reversals. This leads to wacky entries like KNEE-HIGH HEINIE, BEEFY PHOEBE, TOUCHY CHEETAH, and LOAFER FURLOUGH. Lovely how the spelling changes even though the syllables do not. And the surrounding fill is rock solid, with goodies like I DID IT, SEA SLUG, AT A PRICE, TRUE DAT, OH DEAR ME, and FENCES IN.

“Hidden Tactics,” by Jack Reuter (NYT, July 7). Jack made a splashy, if controversial, debut in the NYT with a complex chess-themed puzzle containing harder-than-usual Sunday clues. You really had to solve this one on paper to get the full experience, which right there seemed to trigger some commenters. The instructions in the print version note that the center of the puzzle represents a CHESS / BOARD, in which you can achieve a CHECKMATE IN ONE move by moving the KNIGHT TO B-EIGHT. Sure enough, the center of the grid was shaded to resemble a chess board, with circles and triangles to designate the opposing pieces. The letters that filled in the pieces were standard chess notation for various pieces—P for pawn, K for king, N for knight, and so on. Apparently many solvers saw this bonus feature as some kind of homework assignment instead of an intriguing next layer. Truth be told, I didn’t solve the chess problem myself—I’ll take Jack’s word for it that the chess puzzle solves as instructed. But I can still admire the chops it takes to build a workable grid around such a constraining pattern. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen a chess board depicted in a crossword grid (Patrick Blindauer did it in the August 1, 2007, edition of The New York Sun Crossword in a 15×15 grid) but this one had more constraints due to having more pieces still in play.

“Every Little Step,” by Victor Barocas (WSJ, July 13). In this clever offering, Victor presents common phrases in the format of “X to Y” as word ladders in which X gradually morphs into Y. Thus, for example, the answer to [Penultimate] would normally be “NEXT TO LAST,” but in this grid it appears as NEXT NEST LEST LAST, where NEXT turns to LAST. Neat! Likewise, “CALL TO MIND” appears as CALL MALL MILL MILD MIND. The other ladders, left as an exercise for the reader, are NINE FINE FIVE, ODE ORE ORT OUT JUT JOT JOY, PUT PET BET BED, COME CONE LONE LINE LIFE, and BORN BORE LORE LOSE. I’m sure this puzzle was a BEAR BEAT MEAT MELT MALT MALE MAKE, but it sure was fun to solve.

“Everything’s Better With Cheese,” by Brendan Emmett Quigley & Francis Heaney (AVCX, July 17). Just your everyday “add a cheese” theme, where common expressions get stuffed with varieties of cheese. Add some CAMEMBERT to ASPIRING for ASPCA MEMBER TIRING, clued as [Animal rights advocate losing steam?]. The puzzle featured seven “cheesed” phrases in all; two of the best were SALEM MEN TALK VACCINE and WET LAMAS CARP ON END. In the hands of anyone other than BEQ and Francis, this puzzle would be way too … ok, we’ll say it: cheesy. But these guys make the dad humor taste nutty and smooth, like a nice Swiss.

Best Variety Puzzle of 2019: “Band Weaving,” by Patrick Berry

BEST VARIETY PUZZLE OF 2019: “Band Weaving (Or Possibly, Spell Marching).” By Patrick Berry (March 22). To commemorate Mike Shenk’s receipt of the MEmoRiaL award for lifetime achievement in crossword construction at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Patrick Berry combined two of the variety puzzle formats created by Mike, marching bands and spell weaving, into one spectacular tour-de-force variety tribute puzzle. Just check out that section where the marching bands grid overlaps the spell weaving grid. Every letter in that section is crossing both two entries in the marching bands puzzle (rows and bands) and two entries in the spell weaving grid (horizontally and vertically). That means every one of those letters is quadruple-checked and yet there are no duplicate words and no subpar entries. Holy crossings, Batman! That just might be the most masterful overlapping of words you will ever see in an English puzzle. This year’s ACPT program indicates Patrick will receive this year’s MEmoRiaL award; one can only hope Mike is planning a tribute puzzle of his own that we might well be discussing in next year’s Orcas post!

Other nominees, in order of publication:

“Outside the Box Year 4 Variety Puzzle #11: Tackle Boxes,” by Will Nediger (Outside the Box Variety Puzzles, February 4). This was a variation of the “packing crates” puzzle format created by Patrick Berry. In the typical packing crates puzzle, solvers are given clues to fill in the various rows of the grid and then use those row answers to determine where each of the randomly clued “boxes” fit into the grid, often leaving leftover letters that spell a secret word or message. But to be consistent with the “tackle box” theme, solvers here were given clues for “worms,” words snaking all over the grid. Solvers then used the answers to the worms to determine there the tackle boxes fit. When completed, all of the squares were used in one worm and one tackle box. A very cute concept and beautifully executed!

“Trail Mix,” by Patrick Berry (WSJ, July 6). Patrick Berry also created this variety puzzle format, one in which every row in the 14×14 grid has two consecutive answers. Using these answers, solvers must then place the answers to roughly two dozen enumerated “trail” clues into the grid knowing only that they start in a numbered square, they finish in a dotted square, and they will make one or more hairpin turns between the start and finish. When the trails are completely filled, every square in the puzzle will have been used in answering one row clue and one trail clue. Patrick has used this format many times, but this particular offering is just amazing. It has several very long trail answers, like INARTICULATE, BUENOS DIAS, CAESAR SALAD, PATERFAMILIA, and SPECTATOR SPORT. Mortal constructors would need to use lots of shorter entries to work in all the long stuff, but no trail contains fewer than five letters, and even many of the row answers are great (e.g., I’M AFRAID SO, CASHES IN ON, TAKE PART IN). Plus there’s that terrific clue for MED STUDENT: [Person who’ll probably treat?].

“Outside the Box Year 4 Variety Puzzle #23: Mass Transit,” by Joon Pahk (Outside the Box Variety Puzzles, July 29). In this 17×17 diagramless asymmetric contest crossword (I buy my adjectives in bulk), solvers were told to look for a 12-letter phrase that answers the question posed in this puzzle’s theme. The question proved to be WHY IS IT / SO HARD / TO DRIVE IN / DOWNTOWN BOSTON? Alas, there were no 12-letter entries in the grid. But the last row of Across answers were THE / RES / NOG / RID, which can reparsed as THERE’S NO GRID, the 12-letter solution. It’s one thing to write an asymmetric grid that’s solvable, but Joon managed to include entertaining entries like FUN RUN, WRITE ME, MAYBE SO, and USE CASE that kept the solver interested throughout. And bonus points for putting the meta answer in the very last row so that solvers had to stick it out to completion before grokking the answer.

“Valley of Tears,” by Patrick Berry (WSJ, October 19). Since inception, the Orcas has held firm to a rule limiting any one constructor to no more than two nominations per category. Until this puzzle came out, it looked like Patrick’s two nods would be for the Band Weaving and Trail Mix puzzles already discussed. But then came this Halloween-themed treat that just could not be ignored. The concept looked simple enough—ten squares in the 13×13 grid required three letters (which turned out to be RIP), but only in one direction; in the other direction, a single letter (different from RIP) occupied the same square. Now here’s where it gets amazing: the instructions to the puzzle say the single letters in those ten squares are “visitors to this mournful place.” When you read the single letters in those boxes from left to right, they spell HEADSTONES, “what they’re visiting.” And then, when you read the single letters again but from top to bottom, they spell THE SAD ONES, “who they are.” Leave it to Patrick to find an apt anagram for HEADSTONES and then build a remarkably smooth and satisfying puzzle around that find. It’s practically spooky how effortless he makes this all look. So yeah, this puzzle comes out and now some kind of Sophie’s Choice is required as to which of these puzzles to leave on the cutting room floor when it comes to picking nominees for Best Variety Puzzle? Sorry, but it can’t be done. Consider this a one-time exception, made for Reasons.

“Marching Bands,” by Brendan Emmett Quigley (NYT, November 3). Unsolicited plug: BEQ offers a subscription-based biweekly marching bands puzzle that’s worth every penny and then some. Though created by Mike Shenk, Brendan has mastered this variety format, as illustrated in this beautiful offering published in the NYT. Lots of interesting long fill, like IN THE SAME CLASS, DIAGRAMLESS, GARDENIA, SUPERMAN, PERMANENT MARKER, and THE PRESS, together with fun clues like [Place to have an “in tents” experience?] for CAMP and [Tag line?] for YOU’RE IT, and a complete absence of dull connecting words make for an elegant and thoroughly entertaining solve.

BEST CLUE OF 2019: [Moves in for a short time?] for DANCE CRAZE, in Untitled, by Paolo Pasco and Erik Agard, edited by Rich Norris, Los Angeles Times, July 20. Great clues often force solvers to parse common expressions in new ways. That’s what puts this gem over the top. We normally think of “moves in” as one expression meaning “arrives at a new home.” But in this clue, “moves” has nothing to do with relocation and “in” is no mere preposition. Instead, the moves are actions on the dance floor, and “in” refers to its present popularity. Thus, a DANCE CRAZE has “moves” that, like any fad, are “in for a short time.” When, through crossings, the solver finally tumbles to the answer, the “aha moment” is hugely satisfying.

Let’s extend kudos (and reveal the solutions) to the other nominees for Best Clue of 2019. In this category we recognize both constructors editors, as often some of the best clues come emerge in the editorial process. Here were the other nominees:

  • [List of things to try?] for DOCKET, in “The Weekly Crossword: Monday, January 14, 2019,” by Patrick Berry, The New Yorker, January 14.
  • [Refuse to tap out] for ASHES, in “Themeless 87,” by Erik Agard, Glutton for Pun, March 2.
  • [Launching pad?] for STARTER HOME, in “Aries Rows Garden #6.15,” by Andrew J. Ries, April 9.
  • [Brand for the rest of the people?] SEALY, in Untitled, by Robyn Weintraub, edited by Will Shortz, New York Times, May 11.
  • [Upshot?] for AERIAL PHOTO, in “The Weekly Crossword: Monday, July 22, 2019,” by Natan Last, The New Yorker, July 22.
  • [May through mid-July 2019] for PRIME MINISTER, in “Outside the Box Year 4 Rows Garden #47,” by Joon Pahk, July 30.
  • [One in a semi circle?] for CBER, in “Themeless #4,” by Patti Varol, edited by Tracy Bennett & Laura Braunstein,” The Inkubator, September 26.
  • [Synagogue props] for MAZEL TOV, in “Saturday Stumper” by Garrett Estrada (Brad Wilbur and Erik Agard), edited by Stanley Newman, Newsday, October 12.
  • [Toy made with no plastic junk?] for KEN, in “Transformations,” by Amanda Rafkin, edited by Laura Braunstein & Tracy Bennett, The Inkubator, December 5.

Best Gimmick Crossword of 2019: “Going Way Too Far,” by Francis Heaney (AVCX, June 12)

BEST GIMMICK CROSSWORD OF 2019: “Going Way Too Far,” by Francis Heaney (AVCX, June 12). This was also a contest puzzle, but we placed it in this category because the conceit is so hilarious to TV viewers of a certain age that the “gimmick” element shines through. The puzzle is a variation of the “going too far” variety puzzle format in which some entries are one letter too long to fit in the allocated number of squares so solvers must place the extra letter into one of the grid’s gray squares. (Black squares are turned to gray squares so they are easier to read when completed.) But in this particular puzzle, according to the instructions, some entries are two letters too long and thus will break through a gray square and into the square beyond it.

When completed, the gray squares, when read row by row from left to right, spell this additional clue: FERRIS BUELLER SONG THAT IS APT TO THIS PUZZLE. That could be any number of songs, until you realize that the last letters in the answers that went “way too far” (i.e., into the gray square and the one beyond it), read row by row, spell KOOL-AID MAN. That points to the song “Oh Yeah,” which was the catchphrase of the Kool-Aid Man in various TV commercials, usually uttered as he broke through solid walls. Notice that in this grid, the letters spelling KOOL-AID MAN likewise break through the gray walls! That’s the extra touch that really elevates the “going too far” gimmick to the next level. Readers here agreed, showering the puzzle with 21 5-star ratings. (Interestingly, the puzzle received 23 total ratings. Twenty-one readers gave the puzzle 5 stars, and the other two gave it 1 star. Exhibit A in the argument that Star Ratings Are Unreliable.) </end tangent>. Through this puzzle, Francis again proves he is consistently among the most innovative and imaginative constructors.

Other nominees, in order of publication:

Untitled, by Ross Trudeau (NYT, January 17). This was THE LOOKING GLASS puzzle that commanded 36 five-star ratings on this site. In this puzzle, the revealer reads down the center of the grid. Every Across answer on the right side of the grid must be printed backward, while every across answer on the left side is entered normally. Thus, once your pencil reaches the other side of THE LOOKING GLASS, everything is printed backward. In a neat touch, the Across entries on both sides of the looking glass are all palindromes, so the gimmick is consistent. All this and only 72 words in the grid to boot!

Untitled, by Queena Mewers and Alex Eaton-Salners (NYT, February 6). Billed as a “uniclue” crossword, all of the puzzle’s clues came in a single list, not separated as per usual into “Across” and “Down” clues. Solvers had to figure out that every time an Across answer shares a number with a Down answer, the Across answer is written in English and the Down answer is written in Spanish! For 4-Across, then, [Prometheus’ gift] is FIRE, but in 4-Down it’s FUEGO. There are eight such pairs in all, including the clever revealer, [Language of the answers to this puzzle’s uniclues], the Across answer to which is ENGLISH and the Down answer to which is ESPANOL.

Untitled, by Alex Eaton-Salners (NYT, April 9). This one also came with special instructions, as every Across answer could spell another word when the letters were reversed. Solvers were given clues for both the forward and the reverse word, but it was up to the solver to figure out which clue went with which word. For example, the answer to the clue [Guard / It might say “Hello”] is NAMETAG (matching the second clue), which can reverse to GATEMAN (the match for the first clue). Given the constraint most of the Across answers were in the 3- to 5-letter range, but the fill was quite smooth overall.

“Mirror Images,” by Jeff Chen (WSJ, June 5). Upon reflection, the grid’s left-right symmetry should have been a big hint. On the left side of the grid, the four long Downs are, from left to right, MOLASSES, COLONELS, STALLED, and LEVELED. Opposite those entries, on the right side of the grid, there’s MORASSES, CORONERS, STARRED, and REVERED. You see what’s happening, right…er, correct? The Ls on the left side of the grid are changed to Rs over the on right side of the grid. Importantly, there are no other Ls or Rs in the grid, so the gimmick is executed consistently throughout. And yet there is no awkward fill indicating how difficult it must have been to make this grid work. Another day at the office for Jeff.

“What’s Your Sign?” by Rachel Fabi (Inkubator, July 18). The grid’s black squares form a visual representation of the ZODIAC sign CANCER, and those symmetrically-placed terms nudge the solver into seeing the depiction clearly. Because of the visual representation, the grid contains two two-by-two sections that are cut off from the rest of the grid. Two-letter answers that don’t interlock with the rest of the grid? Normally that would be frowned upon, but this is what makes the puzzle really special, as the four letters in each 2×2 section spell MOON (the lunar ruler of Cancer) and CRAB (the symbol for Cancer). Best of all, though, the grid layout allows for some really awesome long fill like SWAPPED SPIT, POTTERVERSE, and SAMIRA WILEY. Impressively, this looks to be only the second crossword published by Rachel. One can only hope her future work will be this imaginative.

“Null Set,” by Howard Barkin (Fireball, November 6). The five longest Across entries (LEFT-HANDED, SPEAKS OUT, GONE BAD, KEEP CLEAR, and VACANT LOTS) all contain a word synonymous with “missing,” even though the word is used in a different context in each theme entry. Solvers then had to realize that those synonyms went “missing” in the Downs. Take the first four Downs for example. In the grid they look like HALL, ICEE, RAFT, and TITLING. But if the third letter in each (L, E, F, and T, respectively) go missing, those answers become HAL, ICE, RAT, and TILING, which in fact match the given clues. Working the Down clues is so, so hard until you get what’s going on, and the resulting “aha moment” has you happily racing through the rest of the puzzle in pretty short order.

Untitled, by Andy Kravis and Erik Agard (NYT, December 19). Four white squares in the empty grid already contain diagonal slashes. Turns out each is a STATE LINE, the [Geographical demarcation represented by each of the four slashes in this puzzle]. Solvers had to write the postal abbreviations for two neighboring states into each slashed square because the corresponding Across and Down answers each contained two clues, one that works for each abbreviation. The clue for 1-Across, for instance, was [Club fee / “Hell no!”]. The answers were (CO)VER and (NE)VER. By writing CO one side of the clash and NE on the other, you had a nice representation of the state line between Colorado and Nebraska. Those same states worked for 1-Down, (CO)WGIRL and (NE)W GIRL, clued as [Dale Evans, for one / Zooey Deschanel TV series]. My personal favorite pairing was IN THE (WA)Y and IN THE(OR)Y. Throw in some lively nonthematic fill like MEAN MUGS, PATOOTIE, and Alison BECHDEL and you have a thorny puzzle that keeps you interested throughout.

Honorable Mentions for Best Gimmick Crossword of 2019: In his July 11 NYT puzzle, Alex Eaton-Salners posed five italicized clues that seemed to have nonsense answers until solvers realized that the clues should be read in reverse and the answers should be entered in reverse (so DEZIMOTSUC is not some gibberish answer to [Red root], it’s CUSTOMIZED spelled backward because the clue should be read in reverse as [To order]). Doug Peterson’s September 26 NYT was not just a RING rebus but also a puzzle commissioned as Brendan McGrady’s marriage proposal to Amanda Yesnowitz at the Westchester Crossword Puzzle Tournament. In “Fowl Play,” the December 4 Fireball crossword from Andrea Carla Michaels and Mark Diehl, rebus DUCKs in Across answers become SWANs in the crossing Downs.

Best Tournament Crossword of 2019: “Saving Face,” by Maddie Gillespie and Doug Peterson (Lollapuzzoola 12, August 17).

BEST TOURNAMENT CROSSWORD OF 2019: “Saving Face,” by Maddie Gillespie and Doug Peterson (Lollapuzzoola 12, August 17). As a rule, you don’t want to get too ambitious with a tournament puzzle concept, since by definition solvers will only have a limited amount of time to figure out what’s going on and complete the grid. This puzzle definitely pushes the envelope creatively but the gimmick comes quickly enough that solvers have time suss it out and use it to help complete the grid. The puzzle’s subtitle warns that “Some clues are cluttered with lost artifacts. Can you recover the relics and restore order?” Right away solvers likely see that the lines separating some columns of white squares are not completely lined off. And the clues for the Across answers spanning those connected columns seem awfully weird. [Dance move popular in wrap videos]? Huh? Does Saran Wrap have a YouTube channel? What gives?

Well, the two long Downs offer some help: GATHER THE PIECES and FIX THE TIMELINES. If you “gather” (or “remove”) the “w” from the wrap video clue, you’re left with a perfectly suitable clue for TWERK. If you then place the gathered W piece into the gap between the T and E in TERK, you get the desired answer. Sure enough, every one of the weird clues contains an extra letter that can be placed in the gap between columns to derive the correct answer to the abridged clue. The kicker, then, is that the pieces, read from top to bottom, spell WATCH, SUNDIAL, and CLOCK, respectively. So solvers “gather the pieces” in order to “fix” the missing “time lines!” Fortunately, it takes longer to explain the concept than to solve the puzzle, and the joy of discovering the individual “pieces” recurs throughout the solve.

There were plenty of places for solvers to see what was going on, like with [Shire of “Rocky LV”] as the clue for TA(L)IA or [Denise element] for OSM(I)UM. So the puzzle offered just enough nudges to tip itself off to solvers while still keeping solvers on their toes even after they knew what was happening. That’s pretty close to a perfect tournament crossword right there.

Other nominees, in order of publication: “Following Orders,” by Joel Fagliano (ACPT, March 23). The second puzzle at the 2019 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was part-homage-to-The-Doors, part-is-it-lunch-yet-cuz-dang-I’m-getting-hangry. The Doors classic BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE was a hint that some Across answers would be separated by black squares so that the second part of the answer was a food that could be served as a side dish. For example, MURPHY’S LAW appears in 5- and 11-Across as MURPHY and SLAW. Other theme pairs included CAPRI / CORN, MICRO / CHIPS, and STOCKP / RICE. Notable entries in the fill included REAL MCCOY, MOTH-EATEN, MY OH MY, SCHTICK, IN DEEP, AD EXEC, and THE MRS. On his website, Brendan Emmett Quigley called this puzzle his favorite of the bunch from the ACPT: “A solid theme executed well, and from a technical point of view, constraint-heavy and therefore quite tough to fill cleanly.” A BEQ endorsement carries great weight. We know this guy. He’s okay.

“Plus or Minus,” by Joon Pahk and Laura Braunstein (Boswords 19, July 28). The clues for four Across entries ended with a positive or negative number in parentheses. That was the clue to either add or subtract the spelled-out version of that number in the grid. For example, the answer to [What Barney knocks on when he visits Fred? (+1)] was STONEAGE DOOR, the result of adding ONE to STAGE DOOR. Likewise, [Binge-watches to catch up on a show? (+7)] clued GETS EVEN WITH THE PROGRAM, a variation of GET WITH THE PROGRAM. But the best answer, by far, was the one clued [Where to find happiness, according to Noah Webster? (-8)]: IN THE H’S (a condensed version of IN THE H(EIGHT)S). Brilliant! Throw in lively fill like SEA MONKEYS and great clues like [Event in which everything might be a little off?] for SALE and it all adds up to one entertaining solve.

“Currency Exchange,” by Andy Kravis (Indie 500, June 1). Five squares in the 17×17 grid came pre-filled (such a welcoming tournament experience to start with five correct squares!) with ATM icons. Turns out those squares hide two different forms of currency, one reading Across and another reading Down (hence, the “currencies exchange” as you switch from Across to Down). That’s how DU(RAN D)URAN can cross CA(YEN)NE PEPPER at the ATM machine. The other crossing pairs were SMALL (WON)DER / OR(DINAR)Y, GRA(PE SO)DA / (FRANC)HISE PLAYER, COM(POUND) BOW / MATE(RIAL) GIRL, and (DON G)IOVANNI / N(EURO)LAB. The fill was equally lively, with entries like GAP YEAR, GLORY BE, CLAMATO, LEVEL BEST, OPEN BAR, KILL TIME, and BALL HOG.

“Final (Inside Track),” by Rebecca Falcon (Indie 500, June 1). The final puzzle from this year’s Indie 500 tournament was a themeless tour-de-force from Rebecca Falcon, featuring a slew of juicy in-the-language phrases and some really thorny cluing. In the fill front, there’s I LOOSENED IT, perfectly paired with the clue [Comment after being shown up with a pickle jar], ONOMATOPOEIA (only one-third consonants!), WANDERLUST, Boom BAP, Earring Magic KEN, WOMBMATE, IT’S A DIRTY JOB, and FLAT EARTH SOCIETY. But arguably the real stars were the clues. [It might be conducted with a baton] for MEET, [Pack at the last minute, say] for JAM IN, [Loss in court?] for DISBARMENT, [Request for more at the table?] for HIT ME, [They might suffer from burnout] for BULBS, and, perhaps the best, [One with many Qs and As] for AUDI DEALER. Everything a challenging playoff puzzle should be and more.

Best Contest Crossword of 2019: “Character Development,” by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #573, May 24)

BEST CONTEST CROSSWORD OF 2019: “Character Development,” by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #573, May 24). The instructions asked for “a six-letter word that’s a group of characters.” There were no readily apparent theme entries, save for ALPHABET, ominously clued as [Group of characters]. After some staring, a few solvers tumbled to the realization that six of the Across entries contained hidden Greek letters, including the ALPHA in ALPHABET. There was also a RHO in CARHOP, a TAU in TAUNT, a MU in CLAM UP, a NU in BAR MENU, and a CHI in BRONCHI.

But what to do with this information? It turns out that if you replace each spelled-out Greek letter with the letter itself, you get new words that also happen to answer a different clue in the grid! Change the ALPHA in ALPHABET to an A (that’s an Alpha in Greek, you know) and you get ABET, which can also be the answer to [Aid’s partner, in a legal phrase], which clues COMFORT. Change the RHO in CARHOP to a P (that’s what a Rho looks like) and you get CAPP, an alternative answer to [Al known for his newspaper illustrations], which in fact clues HIRSCHFELD. Change the TAU in TAUNT to a T (the Greek symbol for Tao) and you get TNT, an [Explosive material] like the one it clues in the puzzle, OCTOL). Change the MU to an M and CLAM UP becomes CLAMP, a [Tool in a woodworking shop], the supplied clue for RASP. Change the NU to an N and BAR MENU becomes BARMEN, which is a valid answer to [Their workdays may include pitchers and a nightcap], just like the UMPS in the grid (superb cluing, there). Finally, change the CHI to an X and BRONCHI becomes BRONX, a [Word on New York City borough maps], just like STATEN.

Now, take the first letters of the six answers that correspond to the clues and they spell out CHORUS, the contest answer. You can see it pretty easily from the screenshot above. To quote from Joon’s review, “that’s quite a brilliant meta. it can’t have been easy to find that many words where you could replace the name of a greek letter with the letter itself and still have it spell something substantively different. not only that, but the grid was further constrained because you couldn’t have a stray PI or ETA contained in any of the entries.” What’s more, look at the thematic density throughout this grid–there are 12 theme entries in there, several of which intersect! Readers were obviously impressed, as this puzzle received 44 5-star ratings, more than any other puzzle from 2019.

Other nominees, in order of publication:

“Undershorts,” by Patrick Berry (Fireball, July 10). The instructions asked for an “eight-letter word … hinted at by this puzzle.” The four theme answers are words and phrases that contain within them their two-letter short forms (K.O. for knockout, U.N. for United Nations, E.R. for emergency room, and KY for Kentucky). Taking the letters in the grid under those letters, as hinted by the title, gives the answer to the puzzle: SKIVVIES. A perfect solution word given the puzzle’s title!

“AP Chemistry,” by Pete Muller & Milo Beckman (WSJ, July 12). The instructions asked for “something you might find in a chemistry class.” Eight of the across entries appear incomplete, as each needs an additional word that ends with “-AP.” The answer to [20-minute rejuvenator], for instance, is not POWER but POWER NAP. And the [Cervical cancer diagnostic test] is not just SMEAR but PAP SMEAR. It turns out the letters needed to complete the -AP words are symbols for chemical elements (N from NAP is Nitrogen, and P from PAP is Phosphorous). Now here’s where it gets tricky: if you take the atomic number for each element and then see what letters correspond to those numbers in the completed grid, then read the letters in order from left to right, the letters spell out SOLUTION. What an appropriate contest answer, and what a brilliant path laid out for solvers to get there!

“Reverse Engineering,” by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #587, August 30). Solvers needed to find “a nine-letter word.” The key to cracking this one was realizing that the words of nine clues could be reversed to make new clues that would fit nine other answers in the grid. The clue for GLAZE was [Dish polish], but if you turn that clue to [Polish dish] it would work for the answer at 1-Across: BIGOS, a stew made with cabbage and kielbasa. The clue for RAGA, [Music of India], could switch to become [India of music], a pretty common clue for another answer in the grid, ARIE. [What, say], the clue for PRONOUN, can be revered to [Say what], an apt clue for COME AGAIN. In the puzzle, [Example for children] clues ROLE MODEL, but [Children, for example] could work as a clue for another entry, KIN. [“Oliver!” director], the clue for CAROL REED, can switch to [Director Oliver] in order to clue STONE. [Make discontinued], the clue for CANCEL, can switch to [Discontinued make], a workable clue for OLDSMOBILE. A [Single journey] is a ONE-WAY TRIP, but a [Journey single] could be the song LIGHTS. [DDE, vis-à-vis RMN] clues PREZ, but you could switch that to [RMN, vis-à-vis DDE] to work as a clue for VEEP. Finally, in the reversal so strained it served to tip off the whole conceit to most solvers, [Dash dash dash, dot dash dash, dot, decoded] clues OWE, but it can reverse to [Decoded Dot, dash dash dot, dash dash dash], which, believe it or not, works for EGO! Take the first letters of each of the nine grid words that match the reversed clues and you get BACKSOLVE, an uber-appropriate contest answer. Solvers loved the “really clever mechanism” that was “fun to suss out, with lots of aha moments.” Not bad for a 17×17 grid crammed with what proved to be 18 theme answers!

“How Romantic!,” by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, November 1). “The meta for this puzzle,” said the instructions, “is a song from the ’70s.” Seven of the long Across answers start with a trigram in which two of the three letters are the same: A LA CARTE, WII SPORTS, ANN WILSON, TIT FOR TAT, BBQ BURGER, AHA MOMENT, and ODD DUCKS. Take the double letters, in order as they appear in the grid, and they spell out AIN’T BAD. That leads to the contest answer, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” a popular tune from Meat Loaf. Clever! As Matt said in his review, the puzzle “uses a novel mechanism, amuses the solver, and points unambiguously to the meta answer. This is close to my beau ideal of what an easy meta should be.” Yep.

2019 CONSTRUCTOR OF THE YEAR: Evan Birnholz. Since taking the helm as the Sunday crossword writer for the Washington Post late in 2015, Evan has delighted solvers with consistently clever and satisfying puzzles that always show great care in the grid design and cluing. A Sunday-sized puzzle is nearly twice the size of a daily puzzle, both in number of squares and answers (do the math). So that means Evan is cranking out the equivalent of two quality daily puzzles every week, ranking him among the more prolific constructors in the game.

We’ve already highlighted two of his best puzzles from 2019 in the writeup for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword, but let’s look at a few more of Evan’s puzzles from the year. In his “Double Negatives” puzzle from May 5, Evan used a double-letter rebus in an amusing way, doubling the N-O-T letter sequence in six Across entries and cluing them to reflect that the double NOTs effectively cancel each other out. 23-Across looks like IT’S NN-OO-TT FAIR, for example, but you can parse it as IT’S NOT NOT FAIR or just as IT’S FAIR. Either way, the clue, [“That’s reasonable”?] works. The other theme entries are just as fun: I CANNOT NOT TELL A LIE ([George Washington’s declaration of deceit?]), NOT NOT TO BE TRUSTED ([On the level?]), LET’S NOT NOT GO THERE ([“We should explore that more”]), I’M NOT NOT INTERESTED ([“How fascinating!”?]), and DO NOT NOT ENTER ([Go inside?]). Importantly, you don’t see an undoubled N-O-T sequence elsewhere in the grid, and despite having 18 rebus squares the nonthematic fill is super-smooth. And the cluing is wonderfully playful throughout. There’s [Event at which a school cheerleader might say “Gimme an A”?] for EXAM, [Temple attendees of the past, say] for ALUMS, [Manipulate digitally] for KNEAD, and [Western film star, e.g.?] for BADGE. Clearly, this puzzle was not not a slog!

In his June 15 puzzle, “Back in Town” Evan offers a fun take on the word-reversal theme gimmick, as each of the nine two-word theme entries hides the name of a town in reverse. CANNED GOODS, you’ll note, contains the backward OGDEN, Utah. (For the record, I’m not saying Ogden is a backwards town. It just appears backwards in CANNED GOODS. Don’t @ me.) Evan hints at the gimmick in the clue: [Items stocked in a bomb shelter (Utah)]. The other backward-facing towns are AMES, Iowa, in Stephen King’s DANSE MACABRE, HILO, Hawaii, in TRIPOLI HARBOR, AKRON, Ohio, in the very apt Ohio GOVERNOR KASICH, MESA, Arizona in BASE METAL, MACON, Georgia, in NO CAMERAS, EIRE, Pennsylvania in HURRICANE IRENE, NOME, Alaska in COOKIE MONSTER, and TOPEKA, Kansas in TAKE POTSHOTS. Like any good hidden-word theme, the hidden word straddles the two words in the theme entry. Also like any good themed puzzle, the most impressive theme answers (COOKIE MONSTER and TAKE POTSHOTS) are saved for the bottom of the grid, which most solvers usually reach at the end of the solve. (Evan’s predecessor at the Post, Merl Reagle, used to call the last theme entry the puzzle’s “punchline,” and he always liked to save his best theme entry for last.) But like a truly great puzzle, there’s a bonus hidden within the puzzle! If you take the first letters of the backward towns in order from top to bottom in the grid, they spell out the especially apt AHA MOMENT, which in turn contains a tenth hidden backward town: OMAHA, Nebraska! Mind. Blown. So if you’re keeping track, this was a reverse hidden word contest crossword. Evan’s puzzles are like onions—so many layers, and they make you weep with appreciation.

In the “Change of Address” puzzle from January 27, Evan told solvers he was inspired by visiting his childhood home for the last time before his parents moved out. The revealer HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS, clued as [Phrase about feeling a strong connection to a particular place, and a hint for substituting letters in this puzzle’s circled squares]. It turns out the circled squares in the grid spell out three types of homes, each containing five letters. Sure enough, if you replace those five-letter homes with H-E-A-R-T you get new answers to the Downs that also fit the supplied clues. For example, FRANCHISES contains a RANCH home. But if you preplace RANCH with HEART you get new answers to the Downs that still work for the given clues: [Sounds of laughter] works for both HAR and the new HAH, [Result of two people with incompatible values exchanging numbers, perhaps] works for both the original BAD DATA and for the new BAD DATE, [Hoops org.] works for NBA and ABA, [Angler’s acquisition] works for COD and ROD, and [Something at the end of a shoe] works, more or less, for HOE and TOE. In total, then, you’ll find 15 Schrödinger squares in the puzzle, together with the revealer. Readers loved the personal connection to the puzzle’s theme and admired the execution of this ambitious concept.

Those highly-rated puzzles illustrate what Washington Post Sunday solvers have come to expect. Reader DW put it well on one Sunday post: “As usual, [Evan’s puzzle] leads the pack — clever theme, fun solve, women in the fill and the clues, and clues that never rely on icky stereotypes. Thanks, Evan, for a consistently good Sunday solve.” This. Totally this.

Other nominees for Constructor of the Year, in alphabetical order: Erik Agard had another banner year in 2019. He published 21 puzzles in the NYT alone (eight more than anyone else in 2019). He continued to co-administer the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory on Facebook, a successful and ongoing means of helping aspiring constructors from underrepresented backgrounds to get published in mainstream and independent venues. And in December he assumed editorship of the USA Today crossword. Erik has consciously used his power as editor to publish puzzles from a more diverse body of constructors, especially women. Erik walks the walk.

Patrick Berry continues to show why he is among the most revered puzzle constructors of all time. As mentioned earlier, later this month he will receive the MEmoRiaL award for lifetime achievement in crossword construction at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a recognition Patrick certainly deserves. 2019 was yet another stellar year of puzzle goodness, what with the Best Variety Crossword puzzle and several other nods throughout this writeup. Heck, he even forced us to break one of the most sacred Orcas traditions (just this once!).

Zhouqin Burnikel, known in some venues as C.C. Burnikel, scores her second consecutive nomination in this category as she continues to pump out quality crosswords celebrated for their accessible fill. She won the Orca for Best Easy Crossword, but her prowess isn’t limited to early-week puzzles. Themed or themeless, Daily, mini, or Sunday-sized–C.C. does them all. When you see her byline, you know you’re in for a well-crafted puzzle.

Matt Gaffney is another constructor that consistently appears in any shortlist of Constructor of the Year nominees. His Weekly Crossword Contest is the gold standard for meta puzzles, and his regular WSJ offerings are great at getting new meta-solvers hooked. Readers of this blog routinely rate his puzzles more highly than those of any other constructor, and 2019 was no exception. And for a record fifth year in a row, Matt won Best Contest Crossword. He’s the Boston Celtics of crossword constructors.

Wyna Liu has to the be the Rookie of the Year for 2019. She published seven crosswords, including several themeless puzzles that readers called “fiendish” in difficulty but also “fun fun fun.” Her debut garnered an Orca nod for Best Freestyle Crossword. She also published a couple of themed collaborations with Erik Agard, including a really neat Sunday-sized WSJ puzzle on August 3 in which two-word phrases undergo a TENSE EXCHANGE, as when, for example, DRILL BIT becomes DRILLED BITE, clued as [Hors d’oeuvre that’s been carefully instructed?], and BUZZ SAW becomes BUZZED SEE, the [Diocese where the clergy get drunk?]. Solvers, the future is bright.

Ross Trudeau continued his prolific surge of creative crosswords in 2019, with 10 NYT puzzles and 24 appearances in other traditional and non-traditional crossword venues. He also launched his own puzzle site in June. Happily, he shows little sign of slowing down. Of late, Ross has been “paying it forward,” actively mentoring dozens of novice constructors online and conducting live workshops.

Robyn Weintraub added to her devoted fanbase with uniformly excellent themeless puzzles in the NYT. At a time when submissions to the NYT are at record highs, Robyn’s work continues to get selected for publication, and it’s obvious why. 2019 was a milestone year for Crossworld generally and for Robyn specifically when she was tapped to construct the playoff puzzle for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, marking the first time a woman had the byline for the final puzzle of the tournament. It was a great puzzle, but perhaps my favorite Weintraub puzzle from 2019 was her humorous “Movie Theater Time Machine” puzzle at Lollapuzzoola, with theme entries like SUNRISE BOULEVARD, BOOGIE AFTERNOONS, and DUSK OF THE DEAD. I can’t be alone in hoping to see more themed puzzles from Robyn in 2020 and beyond!

Best Crossword of 2019: “Saving Face,” by Maddie Gillespie and Doug Peterson (Lollapuzzoola 12, August 17).

BEST CROSSWORD OF 2019: “Saving Face,” by Maddie Gillespie and Doug Peterson (Lollapuzzoola 12, August 17). The Best Crossword Orca tends to be anticlimactic if you’ve read the 10,000+ words leading up to this paragraph, as the winner and nominees have all been discussed above. But it’s worth recognizing them all again, albeit briefly. Any of the nominees could have won Best Crossword this year, but the Best Tournament Crossword winner kept rising to the top during deliberations. The gimmick was layered but accessible, and some of the altered clues were just plain fun. Like [Four two, musically] cleverly hiding the added U used in ADUE, or [Like a brutal bleating, e.g.] concealing the extra L used in UNLAWFUL. Maybe the best was the aforementioned “wrap videos” clue, but a close second would be [Extra benefits, of a skort] hiding the K needed to complete PERKS. All this and yet there’s still good fill like LIME WEDGE, GEAR UP, ENCHANTING, and RENEGADES, along with tough clues like [Base for drones] for BEEHIVE, [Pack members, informally] for CIGS, and [They’re attached to handles] for ATS. A creative theme with superior grid construction, fun fill, and gnarly clues–that’s pretty much the formula for the Best Crossword of 2019.

Other nominees, in order of publication:

“Band Weaving (Or Possibly, Spell Marching).” By Patrick Berry (March 22). This nabbed the Best Variety Crossword Orca. That quadruple-checked section of letters will be something we won’t forget for a long, long time.

“Character Development,” by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #573, May 24). The winner of the Best Contest Crossword Orca was the highest-rated puzzle from over 2,000 crosswords from 2019 reviewed on this site, and it wasn’t even close.

“Going Way Too Far,” by Francis Heaney (AVCX, June 12). The winner of the Best Gimmick Crossword elevated an established variety puzzle format and turned it into a very cool and apt contest crossword. One hopes Francis will decide to play with other variety formats in the coming years.

“Life on the Edge,” by Evan Birnholz (Washington Post, June 30). This was the Sunday-sized puzzle featuring animals along the grid’s perimeter with the added constraint that the grid looked like it had normal words even without the letters from the outside animals. Yes, it didn’t win the Orca for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword, but a Best Crossword nod for this puzzle shows just how close the race in that category was.

And that’s a wrap for the 2019 Orca Awards! Thanks for hanging in there for this, the longest-ever Orcas post. And big thanks to the constructors and editors who amused, challenged, entertained, stymied, and vexed us throughout the year. Finally, thanks as always to Amy for providing this forum and for her support of the Orcas. See you around this time next year!

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5 Responses to The 2019 Orca Awards

  1. Jonesy says:

    This is an extremely impressive post in terms of depth. How long did it take to put together? Guessing done in piecemeal over the course of the year?

  2. Caitlin says:

    Wow, what a post! And what a pleasant surprise! Thank you very much for this great honor!

  3. Rich Proulx says:

    Thank you for the time and effort you put into this article. It’s such a great celebration of the puzzling world. It’s nice to be reminded of the puzzles I’ve loved, and introduced to amazing puzzles I’ve missed. You’ve created a wonderful tradition, Sam!

  4. Steve Levy says:

    Great post!! All it needs is a ZIP file attached that contains all of the puzzles!

    • barbara cothran says:

      i agree! i’d love to SOLVE them, not see the solutions!
      barb c.
      p.s. thanks 4 the free Caitlin puzzle u sent in your email!

Comments are closed.