MGWCC #617

crossword 3:57 
meta 1 day 


hello and welcome to episode #617 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Game Time”. for this week 4 puzzle, the instructions tell us that the answer is a famous athlete. what are the theme answers? nothing is indicated as such, but there’s one long answer in the grid, across the middle: {Big b-ball baskets} THREE-POINTERS.

what to do with this clue/entry? i had a few false starts, starting with the observation that the clue itself is triply alliterative. but that didn’t go anywhere. the next thing i looked at was the four other medium-long across answers:

  • {Classic IBM} SELECTRIC, as in the typewriter. classic indeed!
  • {Foul creature} BALLBOY. that’s a pretty hilarious clue, but minor demerits for duping the “ball” from the THREE-POINTERS clue.
  • {Green snack} EDAMAME.
  • {Decide not to move} KEEP STILL.

i noticed that all of these contain two pairs of repeated letters (E and C in SELECTRIC, B and L in BALLBOY, actually three pairs in EDAMAME, and E and L in KEEP STILL). that didn’t go anywhere either, but it then led me to notice that the title “game time” contains a repeated two-letter ending (“-me”), so then i started looking at entries like {Much Twitter content} MEMES, and also a bunch of clues containing repeated digrams, especially {Lying to mama, e.g.} NONO, which has repeated bigrams in both answer and (unnecessarily, it seems) in the clue. similarly {Defer to a Ferrari, e.g.} YIELD goes out of its way to repeat “fer”. there are a bunch of these, but again, this didn’t go anywhere.

looking at the puzzle again a day later, i had an aha: THREE-POINTERS could refer to a different game (than basketball) entirely, namely scrabble. there are four tiles in scrabble worth three points: B, C, M, and P. and i look at the grid for these letters, and i noticed something strange: there are four to six of each of these letters, and each is confined to its own corner of the grid, as you can see in the screenshot above. you can take each group and play connect-the-dots to form a different letter: the B’s form a K, the C’s form an O, the P’s (including the one in THREE-POINTER itself) form a B, and the M’s form an E. this spells out KOBE, as in the late kobe bryant, the answer to this meta. fittingly, he’s a basketball player, although not especially one known for this three-point shooting.

i have to say, this is a very nice meta. it’s certainly subtle enough for a week 4, but once you get the aha, the click is very strong: it cannot be a coincidence that those letters only appear in their own corners, and that they are arranged to form letters of their own. so that’s very cool.

i saw on facebook that the redoubtable jeffrey harris (aka jangler) broke his incredible multi-year streak on this puzzle. (how many weeks was it? several hundred, but i don’t have the exact number on hand.) this certainly wasn’t the hardest one of the last several years, but if anything, that only goes to emphasize how remarkable jeffrey’s streak was. hats off to a legend, and here’s to the start of a new streak.

hope you’re all doing well and staying safe! let’s hear from you in the comments.

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56 Responses to MGWCC #617

  1. Paul Coulter says:

    I had the alternate answer Tom Brady, which Matt has submitted to the panel. For me, connecting the letter groups B,P,C, and M produced 2302. I’m in good company apparently, since I understand this ambiguity produced ROCK for Jangler. I don’t care so much whether my alternate’s accepted, but I urge the panel to restore Jangler’s streak. It’s all in how you connect the dots.

    For me, a little research produced February 3, 2002 as the date Brady won his first Superbowl and MVP. I’m not a big football fan, but even I know he won the game by 3 points, so there was a solid click. It was confirmed by the title, which strongly hints the meta involves a date. Matt points out the two 2s don’t have the exact same placements of their respective letters. I noticed this, too, but it didn’t bother me, since he was working under severe constraints.

    • damefox says:

      This is my gripe with this kind of puzzle: the visual element sometimes leaves a fair amount of room for interpretation (I had M t R E before I figured out KOBE). Add that to the fact that I (along with, I suspect, many others) am completely without printer access right now, and this solving experience was less than ideal.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Only one other TOM BRADY entry and that looks like a Hail Mary. I don’t see anyone else who made the 2302/Tom Brady connection, FWIW.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Panel has voted 3-0 against accepting TOM BRADY as an alternate answer. There are five panelists but we’ve already received a majority of nays after three votes so I’m telling you now.

    • Jon Forsythe says:

      Wouldn’t 2302 be one of the least likely arrangements? I feel like Matt either picks clockwise or grid order when he does metas like this one. So both of those would be 2023 or 2032 for what you saw. And a 3-pointer in NFL would be a field goal so wouldn’t he clue for a kicker or a punter if that was his angle? And also the dot arrangements for the two “2”s are different.

    • Evil Steve says:

      2302/Brady is obviously ludicrous, and no way is that B a C. Counting either of these as alternates is not really supportable.

    • pgw says:

      Can you explain what you mean by “connecting the letter groups B,P,C, and M produced 2302?”

      • Jim S says:

        Instead of (in the order posed by Paul) KBOE, he made numbers and got “2302”

        • pgw says:

          Okay. It’s very hard for me to see either one of those as a 2, but I do agree that the connect-the-dots leaves some room for interpretation.

  2. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 219 correct entries this week.

    By my count, 96% of those who saw the idea realized the letters said KOBE.

  3. BK says:

    Highlighted the 3-point letters on Friday afternoon, stared at the puzzle for at least an hour every day, never saw KOBE. Briefly thought they spelled out COBB. That K requires a degree of imagination.

    • pgw says:

      I had trouble with the K as well – had it as an M at first – but then I realized that Matt’s K is shaped very much like the K on a scrabble tile, whose lower leg takes off from midway up the upper leg as well.

  4. mpstable says:

    I got stuck looking at the 3 point entries. I figured TAO duped with the clue for LAOZI had to be meta related since it could have been TAR, then I got lost searching the clues for those 3 letter strings. I was so far down that path that I never remembered I wrote the other 4 letters down on the corner of my notes.
    The drawing letters in the grid step is a tricky one that’s gotten me before. I whiffed on the CSNY Muller one a few summers ago too.

  5. anjhinz says:

    I had the dots for a long time, but struggled with them (besides the O). Then I looked at images from actual Scrabble tiles online and then they really clicked into KOBE, especially the K.

  6. Streroto says:

    I thought it spelled ROSE and submitted Pete Rose. Sadly that alternate was also not accepted. Agree the three pointer works more w KOBE. But you can just as easily see R as K and S as B and vice versa. Stay well all.

    • David says:

      I am with you on the K being very readable as an R—that’s where my mind went first, too. But I’m actually having some trouble reading the B as an S, to be honest, I think there would need to be connectable dots on the leftmost column for that to work in my head.

      • Jay Miller says:

        I agree also. My first reading of the letters was actually MOSE. I thought the first letter could be an M, R, or K and the third letter could be an S or a B. Given that, I think Kobe or one of the famous athletes named Rose (Pete isn’t the only one who is famous) are good answers. There is no way the third letter can be a C so Rock doesn’t work.

  7. spotter says:

    Most of my wasted time was spent looking at TLAs-Three Letter Acronyms. When I figured out the scrabble tile connection, I was stuck on MODE for a while (thinking Beast Mode at one point, Marshawn Lynch) but that seemed too obscure. I didn’t like the lack of symmetry in the M (or potential W) and realized it could be a K and it all clicked. I don’t see how else a K would be drawn, so I disagree that it requires imagination.

  8. B says:

    Did anyone else read the P-B-C-M shapes as forming B-R-O-N? Seeing now that those letters form B-K-O-E makes more sense, but it’s hard to shake the top left being an R once you look at it.
    -One of the 4%

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Yes the 4% is certainly making themselves heard today

      • Evil Steve says:

        Whiners gonna whine.

      • Peter F says:

        For the sacred sake of statistics I’ll chip in too since I don’t think I was counted in the 4% (saw it, didn’t submit anything) – I was so sure the first letter was M I could never make myself see Kobe. I blame my stubbornness though – these visual tricks demand some flexibility.

        • Matt Gaffney says:

          So of the first 100 entries submitted, 96 got it correct. Two saw the idea but got it wrong (Jangler and Paul Coulter) and two submitted answers that lead me to believe they did not see the idea. So really 98% of the first 100.

          Of the next 50, 47 got it right, and the three who didn’t submitted answers which again make me think they didn’t see the idea.

          The point being that of the first 150 answers submitted, 143 got it correct, and 5 of those 7 didn’t see the idea. So 141 out of 143 of this group were able to decipher KOBE, which is 98-99%.

          So there’s some ambiguity, but not that much.

          • chris says:

            this is pretty fallacious; at the very least, it’s a strong example of selection / survivorship bias, since you’re pretty much ignoring a large chunk of people who saw the idea but weren’t able to decipher kobe, and hence didn’t submit only. put another way, the first 150 submissions will be weighted in favor of people who were able to decipher it, which makes your estimate wrong.

            now, i don’t know how wrong that makes your estimate–it may well be that the correct percentage is close to your number, and it just as well could be far off. even going to all submissions wouldn’t quite solve the problem, but it’d get a lot closer. either way, i don’t particularly care what the right number is, or what counts as a right meta answer, but i do care about the logic here, as well as others being aware that the seemingly-impressive “98-99%” probably isn’t as strong of an argument as it might appear at first.

            • Bob F says:

              Thank you for bringing this up. That has long been my beef with the WSJ stats of the total number of entries each week and the number correct. On harder weeks with more challenging metas, and a more difficult hope of guessing the meta (“a 6-letter noun”), you’ll have a completely different statistic than a week with a guessable meta (a “5-letter food”).

  9. C. Y. Hollander says:

    I thought of Scrabble, made a list of three point entries in the grid (e.g. NAN), which went nowhere, also thought about the letters BCMP, but didn’t think of connecting them.

  10. Chaddog says:

    I didn’t get this one and never would have. I have played scrabble, but am not even an enthusiast. I don’t know how I ever would have made the leap from “athlete” and “three pointers” to an unrelated word game. Kudos to the ~200 or so people who did.

    • Reid says:

      Until I read the writeup, I had no idea about the Scrabble connection. I just noticed the letters and connected the dots. ::shrug::

      • pgw says:

        > Until I read the writeup, I had no idea about the Scrabble
        > connection. I just noticed the letters and connected the dots.

        Wha? That’s amazing – what in the world motivated you to pick out those letters?

        • Jim S says:

          Same boat as Reid for me. Just seemed odd that letters were clustered in corners and didn’t appear elsewhere, the Ps being the hardest because they’re more central than in the corner. All other “common” letters are strewn throughout. Might have been nudged to look for this by the SELF QUARANTINED puzzle recently, but the perfect circle formed by the Cs was also a definite nudge.

        • Reid says:

          Even though it never works, the most recent meta is always fresh in my head, so i was paying a little more attention to letters and their locations. The B’s at the start just jumped out at me a little, but didn’t add up to anything. When I looked elsewhere and didn’t see any other B’s, that’s when I knew i was on the right track.

        • David says:

          I’m guessing a reasonable-sized chunk of the correct solvers this week spotted *something* curious in the grid, like the Bs in the NW, and then either hunted or used other tools to look for other odd clusters of letters with a more brute force approach.

          Some likely recreated the grid in a program like Crossfire to speed it up, so that it wouldn’t require looking for each letter one by one. It’s definitely not the first thing I do, but has been helpful sometimes if I’m still stumped on Monday/Tuesday.

        • Daniel Barkalow says:

          One of my habits when I’m scanning the grid looking for anything that might be relevant is to go through the alphabet looking for whether each letter appears, and this tends to bring out any unusual letter distributions either in quantity or location. Usually, it’s just a good exercise for getting me to look around the grid in a way that’s not just rows and columns, but sometimes it’s particularly relevant.

      • Gideon Fostick says:

        I noticed some of the letters first (M, then B, then C). Next the Scrabble connection clicked and led me to the P.

        I also had trouble with the interpretation – my first guess was HOPE, and I was looking for HOPE SOLO 3-goal plays. Luckily I couldn’t find any or I might have submitted.

  11. Mutman says:

    I was tripped up by ‘Yield’ (sign), Easels and maybe HAHAHA, as things with three points.

    When that got nowhere, the scrabble idea hit me and the letter patterns emerged. Admittedly, I did not have KOBE right away. The K could have been an R, etc. But putting the long answer to use, KOBE didn’t take long to get. BRON? That’s a stretch without the LE and BORN would be more likely.

    Happy to get a full month (finally), especially since I live in Lower Merion, Kobe’s high school township.

    Nice work Matt!

  12. Jon Forsythe says:

    Not sure how you 4% can see anything other than a B in the KOBE. An S would have 4 dots, not 5. A D would have 3 dots. I don’t think Matt would have made the ends of a C come as close as they did if he were trying to make a C. So _OB_ and 3-pointers, b-ball, and his recent death should point you to Kobe.

    I can see a case for thinking the K might be an R but not an M. I think the B in BEIGE wouldn’t have been made a dot if Matt was trying for an M.

  13. Jim S says:

    I brute-forced this one. I didn’t catch on to the scrabble angle, but I noticed early on that the Bs were all clustered. That quickly led to seeing the Cs followed by the Ms. The Ps were the last to fall because they were further removed from a corner cluster. I struggled with the shape of the Bs for the longest time of the 4 – first I saw R, B, then finally K. So I guess I’m proof that it could be solved without knowing a lick about Scrabble.

  14. joon says:

    i have to admit there’s more ambiguity in parsing these letters than i saw the first time i tried to do it. without an ordering on the dots, you can connect them a lot of different ways. admittedly some of them don’t make sense from a “why would he do it that way” perspective—for example, the group of B’s could certainly be an M if you start at the lower left and go up, but it raises the question of why there is an extra B in the middle left—but that probably shouldn’t have to be a consideration.

    i don’t see any way to interpret the P’s as an S without some serious squinting, or outright omitting the top P.

  15. Garrett says:

    I did not get outside of relating 3 pointer to basketball. I probably Scrabble last thirty years ago.

  16. My initial reading of the letters was MODE but I couldn’t think of anyone with that name. I realized there was a lot of ambiguity, and I wrote down every possible letter I could conceive of each cluster being. KOBE was the only word I saw in those letters that I recognized as an athlete, and the clue 39A immediately clicked with that so I felt very confident that was the right answer.

  17. Alex Bourzutschky says:

    Scrabble was my first line of attack, and I noticed that the B’s looked strange. I saw them as an M-shape for a while, then was curious about whether they could be a baseball diamond (with a pitcher and a shortstop as the ones not at corners). I also did notice that the C’s were strange too, but was similarly distracted by sports to see letters. The M’s were also notably dense in their corner, but I didn’t even bother looking further.

    I quickly switched gears to looking for words in the clues and grid that were worth 3 points in Scrabble (LEE, ANA, TAO, etc.). There were surprisingly few in the clues unless you counted “e.g.” and “rd.” That wasn’t giving me anything, so in desperation I looked for 3-word clues (which also seemed low in number).

    In the end I just submitted Kobe because he made a big splash earlier this year. I think the moral is something I’ve known all along: Week 4’s deserve at least two nights’ attention, if not three or four. Lucky to be in the 4%!

  18. C. Y. Hollander says:

    I saw on facebook that the redoubtable jeffrey harris (aka jangler) broke his incredible multi-year streak on this puzzle. (how many weeks was it? several hundred, but i don’t have the exact number on hand.)

    It’s still viewable at you just have to click the left arrow to see the standings as of week #616. Jangler’s streak then stood at 393.

  19. Seth says:

    I got the right answer, but I never saw the Scrabble reasoning. I just noticed the suspicious distribution of B’s, looked for others, and solved it. But I also saw MODE first instead of KOBE.

    As a successful solver, I’m going to put my support behind all those who just saw different letters in the connect-the-dots. It’s clear that they got the gimmick of the puzzle, and they just interpretted some pretty ambiguous dots differently. Justice for the 4%!

  20. john says:

    Perhaps surprisingly, since i love wordplay, i’ve never liked Scrabble. I thought about Scrabble mulling over the meta, but in my distant memory it seemed many letters had 3 points so i though of triple-letter-score, and triple-word-score and figured that there were too many possibilities and junked the Scrabble idea. I should have bothered to look at Google and make sure but was just too lazy since it seemed remote. I loved this meta though – incredible construction feat. 5 stars!

  21. Jay Miller says:

    My first thought was that the three pointers referred to field goals. At that point I constructed a goal post upward from the “P” in pointers, using 5D and 8D as the uprights. When you do this the letters left on the crossbar, above which a kick yields three points, are an anagram for ELI. ELI is also in Selectric and KeepStill. Also, Eli’s number (10) is the start of 41D. This had me believing for a long time that Eli Manning was the answer.

  22. PJ says:

    I don’t think I’ve seen Matt report the number of correct answers that were solo vs. group solves. That would be interesting to me for all puzzles, particularly Week 3 and up. I was part of a group solve this week.

  23. kaes says:

    I noticed the B and M clusters, but never saw the P and C ones, and never thought about Scrabble at all — “game” wasn’t enough to suggest it for me, although I certainly thought though multiple ways to score three points in other games and sports. Wish I had been able to print this out — then I might have tried connecting some dots. Unfortunately I spent most of my time looking at the clues, due to the relative cleanness of the grid. Nice meta, though!

  24. Andy says:

    KOBE was going to be my Hail Mary! I never do those but I figured I might as well. …and then I still didn’t.

  25. Ben Johnston says:

    I missed the Scrabble connection completely, and just spotted the weird grouping of letters. Much more elegant than I realized at first.

    I found the dots quite hard to connect even once I realized what the idea was, but THREE POINTERS was enough of a push toward basketball to make me certain of Kobe.

  26. Rookie Jeff says:

    I recognized the Scrabble connection early, and came up with Kobe, even though a good streak for me is about three. I actually printed out the solution to show my wife how clever these things can be!

    I was also mildly amused that a crossword can actually generate a minor fracas!

    Kudos to Matt for all the creative designs he publishes! I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to come up with new twists week in and out.

    • pannonica says:

      “I was also mildly amused that a crossword can actually generate a minor fracas!”

      All-time prize probably goes to the New York Times on the eve of the 1996 presidential election.

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