MGWCC #668

crossword 3:17 
meta 3 days 


hello and welcome to episode #668 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Asked and Answered”. for this week 3 puzzle, the instructions tell us that we are looking for a six-letter adjective. what are the theme answers? there are four long answers in the grid, interlocking in kind of a hashtag pattern:

  • {To an incredible degree} ASTRONOMICALLY.
  • {Is uncertain} CAN’T SAY FOR SURE.
  • {Hide and seek player’s tactic} MOTIONLESSNESS.
  • {With bad timing, in a way} PEAKING TOO SOON.

interestingly, although these answers span the full grid, they are only 14 letters long. why is this a 14×14 crossword instead of a 15×15? well, it turns out each of these 14-letter answers can be extended into a valid 15-letter entry by prepending one letter (what scrabble players would call a front hook, although only two of the four are valid scrabble words): GASTRONOMICALLY, I CAN’T SAY FOR SURE, EMOTIONLESSNESS, and SPEAKING TOO SOON. what do these four letters have to do with anything? in one case (SPEAKING TOO SOON), the modified entry also fits the clue, but in the other three cases they don’t (unless you think that bottling up your emotions is a good hide and seek tactic).

however, it turns out that these aren’t the only theme answers. in fact, every answer coming off either the top or left edge of the grid is a theme answer, because you can put an entire row above and column to the left of the existing grid (see screenshot) to make valid entries. in many cases, there are multiple possibilities for the front hook letter. how to resolve them? the key is that the new word formed in the extra row/column appears as the first word of a clue somewhere else in the grid. the first one i noticed was APPS, which is in the clue {Apps are sold by them} APPLE. this clue was noticeable to me both because the word order is a little weird and sounded stilted to me, and because last week’s meta had me already thinking about both app(lication)s and app(etizer)s, and i gave some thought to whether we might need to be thinking about APPLE(BEE’S) here for this week’s meta. and i guess apple does sell apps in the sense that they run the app store. but it’s not the first thing i would have thought of, certainly, because all of the apple apps i can think of are actually free in the app store.

anyway, APPS can sit above 4-across to turn GLOW/LANES/UZO/TEM into AGLOW/PLANES/PUZO/STEM. that’s neat. the next one i saw was ASHER (although i thought at first it was AS PER) above 8-across, turning SPCA/PEAKING TOO SOON/URL/MIL/ELY into ASPCA/SPEAKING TOO SOON/HURL/EMIL/RELY. ASHER is the first word of the clue {Asher is her father (and an anagram of her name), in the Bible} SERAH, which, wow. that is a biblical figure i have never heard of, although my daughter is named SARAH. i presume this is the asher who’s one of the sons of jacob? anyway, the word order in this clue was also unnatural-sounding, so it was not hard to pick it out.

after that i got a little bit stuck. it looked like 1-across needed to have a three-letter word on top of it, and since 1d is DEA, i figured that would have to start with an I (or maybe O, although ODEA is more than a little crosswordese-y). i noticed the clue {Ice-T song “Somebody Gotta ___”} DO IT, again with a word order different from the natural-sounding {“Somebody Gotta ___” (Ice-T song)}. and ICE does work up there, turning AMS into CAMS and MOTIONLESSNESS into EMOTIONLESSNESS. but i didn’t feel great about just taking ICE from ice-t.

the next tipoff for me was the entry {Alma mater of George Soros, Cherie Blair, and Tsai Ing-wen, for short} LSE, which i mindlessly filled in as LSU while solving the crossword before fixing it with the crossing e from MOTIONLESSNESS. this isn’t louisiana state; it’s the london school of economics. (cherie blair, the spouse of former PM tony blair, is the only one of those three alumni who’s english, but of course, the LSE draws students from around the globe.) LSE is an unusual crossword entry, but it nicely takes a front hook of E to make ELSE. so i realized that not only were we getting a new top row, we were also getting a new left column. BASED has to go to the left of 21-down to turn IPOD/TONER/AIL/LSE/YES into BIPOD/ATONER/SAIL/ELSE/DYES. and it’s also the first word of the clue {Based on fairness} EVEN, which … i guess it works, but it’s not really as precise as you’d expect a crossword clue to be.

going down to the next block next to 50-down, this is where i realized that ICE-T belongs (and not just the ICE part of it), turning CAN’T SAY FOR SURE/OVER/LISE/EASE into I CAN’T SAY FOR SURE/COVER/ELISE/TEASE. great. but then what’s happening with 1-across and 1-down? i couldn’t find three-letter words starting clues that worked there. so even though i knew i was on the right track, i had to put the puzzle aside for a couple of days because i had reached a dead end.

picking it up again, i realized right away that i had to be looking for four-letter words, not three, to actually complete the puzzle and turn it into a (symmetric) 15×15 grid. i’m a little embarrassed that i hadn’t noticed before that the grid’s symmetry was a little wonky. so i knew there had to be a _I_E word above 1-across and a ___G word to the left of 1-down, and i found them. in fact, i had already found one of them, the HIDE of {Hide and seek player’s tactic}. i thought it was a little funny to turn AMS into DAMS when 1-across was already DAM, but of course, 1-across isn’t really DAM at all—it’s ADAM, because HANG is over there to the left, turning DAM into ADAM (as well as EMO into NEMO and ASTRONOMICALLY into GASTRONOMICALLY).

whew. what’s the meta answer, anyway? now that we’ve found all six extra entries outside the grid, we just take the first letters of the answers to the six clues that start with those words:

  • {HIDE and seek player’s tactic} MOTIONLESSNESS
  • {APPS are sold by them} APPLE
  • {ASHER is her father (and an anagram of her name), in the Bible} SERAH
  • {HANG on to} KEEP.
  • {BASED on fairness} EVEN
  • {ICE-T song “Somebody Gotta ___”} DO IT

that gives us the six-letter adjective MASKED, which these entries certainly were. as an amusing extra tidbit, five sixths of the answer was staring us in the face from the puzzle title this whole time, with its own missing front hook.

i thought this meta was quite brilliant, and i’m somewhat chagrined to have made it harder than it needed to be by just not noticing the asymmetry. that said, the final aha of realizing there had to be another doubly-hidden square in the upper left was quite satisfying.

(speaking of brilliant and satisfying metas, the great patrick berry has a new variety puzzle extravaganza called containment policy available from his website. it’s $15, with a third of proceeds going to covid relief. if you haven’t gotten these puzzles yet, do yourself a favor and just click the link.)

the fill in this puzzle was nothing to write home about; a couple more partials than i usually prefer seeing, including (somewhat surprisingly, at least to me) a pair of six-letter partials, I DEFER and TO FEAR. on the other hand, i was entertained by the freshness (in multiple senses) of {People you don’t even know who weirdly try to interact with you} RANDOS and the clue {“Is ___ OK?”} PEPSI. (fittingly, the last intersects {Rejecting words} NOS at the S.)

that’s all i’ve got this week! how’d you all like this one?

This entry was posted in Contests and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to MGWCC #668

  1. C. Y. Hollander says:

    I agree with joon: brilliant!

  2. lkeigwin says:

    Week 3?

  3. MountainManZach says:

    Yet another week that I wish I still had access to a printer! Was working on the right idea, even thought of fitting the corner letter, but it was too much to keep together in working memory. Very elegant solution.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      I simply typed out the grid in a monospaced font. You might try that next time.

    • David Harris says:

      Dunno if this is helpful, but I usually solve on my iPad, then take a screenshot that I can mark up in the photo editor. Let’s me write in letters, highlight potentially relevant clues/entries, etc. It’s not perfect, but helps give me that freedom to try things out.

      (If you have Crossfire or other constructing software, that also works, and provides benefits like being able to highlight every instance of a letter, but I know that’s a specialized ask!)

  4. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 300 correct answers this week.

  5. Jim S says:

    One of these days, I’ll learn to listen to that little internal voice in my head… I’m staring at my work, where I have “APPS” and “ASHER” written above the diagram and some of the left side as well but couldn’t figure out how to pick and choose which letters were the right ones. My small brain said “Apps was in the clues” and my larger brain said “Isn’t that nice” and shoved the little guy to the side. So close. Fantastic puzzle.

    One rabbit hole for me was the possible similarities in the extra top row with the first column. “IDE” across the top with an “A” over the blank (or over “GLOW”) kind of replicated 1 and 2 down, with 3 down’s “EMOTIONLESSNESS” kind of fit for “EMO”. Could the spot where “APPS” is really be “APPLE” with the “E” over the blank space, repeating “APPLE” from the middle of the puzzle? Nothing for the “ASHER” part, though…

  6. John Berry says:

    aaaahhhhh so close!! I correctly matched up the extra words APPS, ASHER, and ICET but then got stuck — like Joon I never noticed the wacky symmetry — and figured I was lost very far down in a rabbit hole.

    Did anybody else get stuck on converting “PEAKING TOO SOON” to “PEEKING TOO SOON” as an alternative “Hide and seek player’s tactic”? There were a whole bunch of traps for the unwary in this one.

    Thanks again, Matt, absolutely amazing puzzle here.

    • mkmf says:

      How clever! So glad I didn’t see that – it would have swerved me into a ditch for sure.

    • Debbie says:

      John, I also got stuck at peaking too soon/peeking too soon! Wasted a whole lotta time trying to make that work!

  7. Steve Thurman says:

    I took about as long as you to solve the meta, but two things in particular gave me grief.

    First was the fact that the two partials in the upper left (also my last two to solve) could fit with the first three letters of two other clues! I had OCEan with DAM for a while, forming ODEA, CAMS, and EMOTIONLESSNESS. Then I had ANGry with DEA, forming ADAM, NEMO, and GASTRONOMICALLY. It took me a while to realize they both needed the H to form words making the grid symmetrical.

    The other part that bothered me greatly (and I truly believe that Matt is sinister sometimes) was that I couldn’t get the title to fit. What am I asking and answering? Well, there are a LOT of answers in the grid, including the obvious (I thought) YES and NOS. Throw in I DEFER, I CAN’T SAY FOR SURE, and maybe even DO IT, and I felt like there was a Magic 8-Ball somewhere to be found.

    It took me a while to find the answer and realize how diabolical (and genius) the title actually was. An excellent puzzle indeed.

  8. Reid says:

    2 questions for people who got this one, since it seems very far away from me still.

    – What was your in? how did you think to put letters outside the puzzle? Just the asymmetry?

    – I still don’t understand what the title means.

    • Steve Thurman says:

      My “in” was seeing that MOTIONLESSNESS, ASTRONOMICALLY, and PEAKING TOO SOON could all have a letter added at the front.

      The title only made sense to me after I solved the meta. Not only did it not help me get there, but it actually slowed me down! Once I saw MASKED, I realized that it followed the convention of the puzzle by putting the “M” in front of ASKED. Once I did that, the puzzle was “answered!”

      • Streroto says:

        I saw this too very early then abandoned it because the 4th crosser could not be made into a word or words. Spent hours in rabbit holes before asking for help. A kind soul showed me the extra boxes and 10 min later I was done.

        But I have the same question as Reid-what on earth makes you add extra squares except perhaps the asymmetry. I guess this is where constructors have a distinct edge

        Back to zero.

        I only got this after a

    • David R says:

      I immediately looked at the long entries looking for a theme. I saw that each could have a letter added to them and make a new word/phrase. I then on the top noticed it for ASHER which I saw was the first word of a clue. The big hold up for most will be the HIDE/HANG cross where you need to add the H. I didn’t even notice the fact that it was a 14X14 which would have made that realization come a lot quicker.

      The meta answer is MASKED and to solve the meta you are adding a letter, in the case of the title ASKED, cheeky.

    • Margaret says:

      I noticed it was 14 x 14 right away, and saw that it was asymmetical. Sat around with that for a two days trying to figure out if the four long answers were even theme because our meta was six letters, how to translate four into six.

      Finally noticed Gastronomically was a word and so was Emotionlessness. That prompted me to notice that everything on the top and left could have a new first letter and AHA if there’s a new top row and left column, then the grid is 15 x 15 and symmetrical, I had to be on the right track. Sat for another day.

      How to pick among the letters when there are so many options for some of them? Bottom left didn’t have too many choices, hmm, it could be Ice-T who is a standard grid answer, wait a second, he’s in the clues, all of them start clues! From there it only took a second to see MASKED.

      That said, I still don’t understand the title.

      • Margaret says:

        Ohhh, ASKED -> Masked gotcha
        And thanks for explaining the ordering of MASKED, I just took the letters and anagrammed them and it bugged me that they weren’t ordered. Also I used E instead of M first, which slowed me down.

    • Stribbs says:

      I noticed the 14*14 right away, but not the asymmetry. I looked at PEPSI as the only answer whose clue had a “?”, and noticed it was in the center, which then made me wonder why an even-sized grid had a center entry. Then the asymmetry was clear and it looked like an obvious cut from the corner of a symmetric grid, and from there filling in those cuts was the most obvious thing to do.

      Recognizing that the fill-ins came from the clues came quickly from filling in ASHER and remembering that strange clue, which applied to an unnecessarily obscure answer (SERAH/NAVE/RANIN can be SARAH/NOVA/RONIN, which made me think there was something interesting in that block, although not really except to get that clue.)

      • Paul says:

        I also tried retrofitting more normal words there–you could leave RANIN by using SYRAH and NAVY. That drew attention to ASHER, and headed me in the right direction.

    • Susie says:

      My in: I was shocked that Matt would create an asymmetrical puzzle, then started noticing words that could be changed to longer words, which were then also in the clues.

      Agree that this is another of Matt’s brilliant puzzles, and very fun to solve.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      I check for deviations from the standard grid layout (15×15, 18o° rotational symmetry) as a matter of course, since any such deviations will presumably have something to do (if only indirectly) with the meta-puzzle.

      In this case, taking the smaller size of the grid together with its marked asymmetry naturally made me wonder whether adding the missing row and column could also fix the asymmetry. That’s how I thought to put letters outside the puzzle. Absent the ‘substandard’ size, that leap would have been rather more difficult to make.

    • Daniel Barkalow says:

      First thing I noticed was that PEAKING TOO SOON seemed to want to be SPEAKING TOO SOON. Second was that MOTIONLESSNESS could have a letter at the start, and then ASTRONOMICALLY also working clinched that there was something going on, and the other grid-spanning answers also worked.

      I noticed that the grid was a asymmetric and then that it was 14×14, but didn’t know what to do with this.

      I’ve been trying to do Universal crosswords downs-only for a while, which sometimes means you are looking at a down clue whose answer you don’t know crossing a bunch of across clues where you don’t even know the clue. The middle left looked a lot like something which I could fill in just from the assumption that all of the words are going to be reasonable crossword answers, and got that BASED fit and nothing else did.

      I often discard my filled-out grid and start over the next day (remembering the answers reasonably well), which gets me to reread the clues. Doing this, I noticed that BASED was a dupe, and then went looking for words in the clues to fix APOS and AS?ER and my DICE/DENG upper left (I was far too fond of EDAM). Having picked out 6 clues as special, the initials of their answers were my first try, which clicked with the title as something you could remove the first letter of.

    • Ale M says:

      My “in” was definitely the asymmetry, and I’m sure I would have gone nowhere without that. With very few exceptions Matt uses symmetrical grids unless the asymmetry plays into the solution somehow. Something was “ishy” about it!

  9. john says:

    Amazing. 5 stars.

  10. Mutman says:

    Answering Reid, I typically notice asymmetry. That’s just me. And of course, by adding the column and row, it makes it perfect symmetry for the end result crossword. I started piecing together words that made sense, like GASTRONOMICALLY and EMOTIONLESSNESS. That sent me off to the races.

    Took me a while to figure out the words were in the puzzle, but once I got that, it made filling in those ‘squares’ easier.

    I never seem to get the last step in terms of the elegant ordering. At once point I had all the grid entries first letters, but had ADKESE and was miffed. But then realized that I errantly had EMOTIONLESSNESS instead of the correct MOTIONLESSNESS. That got me the correct letters. When I saw the title, with ASKED in it, I thought that was final clue to getting MASKED.

    I loved this meta!!! Finally had a great aha moment, which I have been lacking lately.

  11. Craig says:

    I noticed the asymmetry right away, but I just didn’t have time to spend on the puzzle this weekend as we were attending to family business. I think this was very well done, and I wish I had had the proper time to spend on it.

  12. Steve Thurman says:

    I forgot to mention that this is the first puzzle in quite some time that has made me lose sleep. I had a hard time getting it out of my mind on Sunday night, then woke up early Monday morning and immediately started thinking about it again.

    I’m not really sure what this says about me.

  13. Dan Seidman says:

    I noticed the asymmetry pretty quickly, and also that SERAH was a weird entry that could have been the more common SYRAH, crossing NAVY. At the time I figured maybe Matt just liked the anagram with Asher, but it was likely to have been necessary.

    My first approach was to try removing the bottom row and right column to make it symmetrical, and I looked for something in those squares. Then I when I came up with adding to the top and left side, I still had Asher in my brain so I pretty quickly tied the extra words to the first words of clues.

  14. David G says:

    I got the trick pretty early on with the 6 extra answers extending outside the grid, but I just couldn’t put the referenced letters in the right order. So I had MSADEK and couldn’t see (M)ASKED staring me in the face. So my next thought was to rebuild the grid to 15×15 with HIDE et al and take the first letter of each of the new answers referenced by the same clue numbers. This started off well until I got to the end and realized that there was no 58-Across in the new grid. So I had DPAEC(A?) and ran that through an anagram search and came up with nothing. I figured I might as well try MSADEK while I’m there and voila. I STILL sat with this for another 10 minutes or so before noticing ASKED dangling there all smug and shit. What a ride, Matt.

    While first hunting for the Meta, I realized that “Is Pepsi” is a palindrome, and with the singular clue with a question mark in a puzzle titled “Asked and Answered” referencing (what I thought was) the central answer in the grid, I thought this was key for some damn reason.

    What really clued me in to the answer was 19-A I OWE. Why not go with LANAS and IOWA there? With that realization, the whole thing started to take shape.

    • TRidgway says:

      Never got the Meta, but also noticed that COLE/LISE in the southwest could easily have been CORE/RISE (much easier cluing). So something’s up with that L …

  15. Mikie says:

    Wow. Saw the asymmetry immediately but didn’t notice it was 14×14 so never snapped to the extra row/column to make it a standard grid. Bravo. If Week 4 is tougher than this, might as well get the butter out now ‘cuz I’m toast!

  16. Reid says:

    thanks to everyone for the answers. abnormal grid patterns for some reason aren’t something that my eye notices easily, so I guess I’ll need to make more of a point of looking!

  17. David Benbow says:

    I saw Gastronomically right away and noticed that the clue could be modified to “To an edible degree” then I did the same thing with Emotionlessness (“player’s tactic”). It didn’t pan out, but got me thinking in the right direction.

    Was this intentional or did I get lucky?

  18. I noticed the 14 x 14 assymetry immediately but I spent two days on “Is Pepsi OK?” That Pepsi smack in the middle of the grid made me even more sure that that was the question ASKED. It was the only question in the grid. There were several Magic 8 Ball kind of responses like “Can’t be sure” Yes” “Nos”. It made me think of the old SNL bit “No Coke. Pepsi” And Cole was an entry which could be Coke with a letter change and had me looking for other beverages to possibly switch out a letter. By Sunday morning this rabbit hole had to be abandoned and I concentrated on the 14 x 14 aspect more and was able to solve. Just a brilliant meta!!!!

  19. Garrett says:

    I noticed right away that the grid was 13×13 if you left off the right column and bottom row, which made the # work and gave us a center cross. I started focusing on the asymmetry and so focused on words on the right that had no analog on the left.

    The most blatant one was RETINA — no other across word on the left had this length.

    Take the first letter of the first six of those:

    and Retina

    and by moving only one letter — R — you have SPRING

    The adjective for Spring is Vernal, and this puzzle comes out on the vernal equinox weekend (it is today) and the start of Spring (again, today).

    Also VE (naVE) R (gnaR) NA (retiNA) and L (periL)

    Seemed like a good idea, so I submitted VERNAL, a six letter adjective for Spring.

    A for effort?

  20. Bob Kerfuffle says:

    There was never any likelihood of my solving this, but I did notice the missing row and column and tried making sense of possible added letters. I got so far as seeing ICET bottom left, whom I knew was a rapper; and, instead of APPS center top, could be APPI, (ITEM instead of STEM); and right top, ASHER. By golly, there is a Lil APPI, rapper, and ASHER Roth, rapper. Totally useless, natch!

  21. Daniel Barkalow says:

    You know you’ve got a tough editor when they react to you having a few dupes between answers and parts of clues by cropping off the top and side of your grid. I wasn’t sure if the “time to solve the crossword” measurement should include the part that was missing.

  22. Barney says:

    Joon, how does the difficulty level of those Patrick Berry puzzles compare to those he publishes in the WSJ?

    • Norm H says:


      Having gotten through almost half of the puzzles in Patrick Berry’s “Containment Policy,” I would rate the puzzles as harder than his WSJ offerings. Not insanely so, but enough that you feel it. The added difficulty comes not from the clues or the formats (many of which appear in the WSJ) but from the fact that each puzzle has a meta element added to the mix and that there are other non-standard elements — say, rebuses or skipping spaces in the grid. The flipside, of course, is the fun that comes from working through those challenges and solving the meta. And while I should be used to it by now, the intricacy and elegance of Berry’s work continues to astonish.

  23. ===Dan says:

    Maybe nobody will get back to this post again, but I’m a week 1-2 solver and this went fairly smoothly for me. Go figure. First I noticed the 14s could become 15s. Then I noticed the asymmetry. Then I noticed that column and row zero could make the grid symmetrical, so I started looking for fill there. Then I noticed that there were multiple answers for some words, so there had to be a way to disambiguate. And then I almost immediately looked for the “gimmes” in the clues. And then, I found the clues with the “correct” answers. It seemed obvious to take the numbered square for each selected clue. For me, the path to the solution was inexorable.

Comments are closed.