WSJ Contest — Friday, March 26, 2021

Grid: 15ish; Meta: had to sleep on it  


Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “We’ll Have Waters All Around” — Conrad’s review

This week we’re told, The answer to this week’s contest crossword is a three-word phrase that’s something you might ask for in a restaurant.

Hey everyone, this is Conrad. I’ll be helping my friend Laura by taking on some of the WSJ meta write-ups. One across (ADD) has the following helpful clue: “Put smaller numbers together to get a larger number, as you’ll do with 23 answers here.” Having noted many islands while solving the grid, I added them to my notes. Missed a few (like RAB) on my first pass, but eventually found the 23 themers:

WSJ Contest -- 3.26.21 -- Solution

WSJ Contest — 3.26.21 — Solution

  • [1D: Part of the Aleutian archipelago]: ADAK
  • [18A: Country near Micronesia]: NAURU
  • [19A: Name on New York Harbor maps]: ELLIS
  • [20A: Waimea Canyon State Park site]: KAUAI
  • [22A: Home to Sappho]: LESBOS
  • [26A: Largest of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides]: SKYE
  • [26D: ___ and Príncipe (African country in the Atlantic)]: SAOTOME
  • [27A: Southernmost state of Australia]: TASMANIA
  • [27D: Its western half belongs to Indonesia]: TIMOR
  • [37A: Manila is on it]: LUZON
  • [39A: Country east of Tunisia]: MALTA
  • [40A: Haleakala’s site]: MAUI
  • [52A: Largest of the Balearics]: MALLORCA
  • [56A: Hippocrates was born on it]: KOS
  • [57A: Paul Gauguin Museum location]: TAHITI
  • [61D: Largest of the Greater Antilles]: CUBA
  • [63D: Napoleon was exiled there]: ELBA
  • [64A: Birthplace of Apollo]: DELOS
  • [65A: Minotaur’s home]: CRETE
  • [66D: Resort spot off Croatia’s coast]: RAB
  • [70A: Neighbor of Bonaire and Curaçao]: ARUBA
  • [71A: Blue Grotto site]: CAPRI
  • [73A: Pythagoras was born there]: SAMOS

Next step: how do I “put smaller numbers together to get a larger number?” I ran down various dead rabbit holes, such as: 18A (NAURU): 1 + 8 = 9, mapping to grid location 9 (“O”). 1A only has one letter, so let’s assume 1+0 = 1 (“A”). That forms the gibberish string “OGDMSOGEMNLEGLNSGASONGE” (across, then down order). Even accounting for ambiguity, no amount of anagramming will pull signal from that noise. Next failed theory: ADD spans the numbered squares 1, 2, and 3, ADDing up to 6, which maps to “I”. But NAURU only has one numbered square (18). The gibberish INEILS started to form before I bailed on that plan. Having exhausted addition for a while, I wondered if ADD was a hint for a later step, so I tried to circle all entries to find a pattern, focus on 5-letter entries, find patterns in the themer clues, and sort/arrange the islands by ocean, country, entry length, etc. All lead nowhere.

Islands = 1,000

Islands = 1,000

Hoping to get this wrapped up before Matt’s other meta hit at noon (and avoid the dreaded fate of juggling two metas at once), I decided to double down on ADD the next morning and brainstorm other ways to ADD the themers. As noon was approaching I had an idea: what if I tallied the numbers of the clues? Meaning: 1 (ADAK) + 18 (NAURU)… + 73 (SAMOS)? I had no idea how that could map to anything helpful, but it was a plausible rabbit hole I hadn’t explored, so I opened a spreadsheet and tallied.

The entries added up to 1000, leading to our meta answer, THOUSAND ISLAND DRESSING. I could not find confirmation that dressing is the third word (in the grid or clues), but “a three-word phrase that’s something you might ask for in a restaurant” locks it in.

That’s the first time I’ve seen this mechanism, and it led to a great “aha” moment. I suspect that folks with less meta crossword solving experience may have had an easier time with this one than experienced solvers. I kept trying to map things back to the grid (a common meta mechanism), and would have probably found the answer more quickly by simply adding the grid numbers if I were new to metas. Here’s a hint I gave an experienced solving pal: If you had never solved a meta and were told to ADD the numbers of the themers, what would you do?

My hat is off to Matt: what an amazing meta, with an equally impressive construction. I have no idea how he continues to break new ground and design new meta mechanisms. I’ll leave you with a beautiful cover of Islands in the Stream (written by the Bee Gees and originally recorded by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers), recorded by The Running Mates.




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36 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, March 26, 2021

  1. Harry says:

    FWIW, DORA (2down) is also an island, which messes up the math if you missed one of the other islands.

  2. Scott says:

    I was not even close after spending an hour or so.

    • Joella D Hultgren says:

      An hour? I spent 4 days on it!
      Couldn’t see any confirmation for “dressing”.
      Personally, I would never ask for Thousand Island Dressing.
      There were 2 references to the number 3: 49A: III, and 68D: TRE.
      I took that to mean add 3 to each island clue number…..gibberish.

  3. Bob Kerfuffle says:

    In addition to ADD, there were by my count 23 three-letter entries in the grid, which could be combined to form . . . nothing. Co-incidence? Mis-direction?

  4. JohnH says:

    I wasn’t close, not to mention thoroughly miserable after the endless geography quiz leaving some wild guesses for crossings. I couldn’t have so much as told you which are islands, although it did occur me to look for islands.

    After that? Would it ever have occurred to me that “put smaller numbers together”refers by “smaller” to clue numbers for the islands? Would I then think of something or other in it as a dressing? Not in a million years.

    If you ask me, worst puzzle ever quite apart from a weird meta. I wouldn’t penalize it for the latter since I’m so out of touch with metas.

    But a comment seems to say that clues for the islands calls them islands, to help, and thus excludes DORA (whatever that is). Help me out. Am I missing something? I threw the puzzle away Saturday morning, but if the helpful commentary cites the clues correctly here, not one of them calls them islands. Thanks.

    • austin says:

      lol my bad how about “the 23 islands in the grid were all clued as locations” i guess it was up to you to figure out that they were all islands (the title helped with that)

      • JohnH says:

        Thanks. Oops, yes, you did say “locations.”

        It did occur to me that Maleska has gone down in history, at least to puzzle fans, as all truly obscure geography, no doubt to bolster Shortz’s reputation as someone who’d never do that. So I wondered if the puzzle weren’t a parody of that with an in-joke for crossword addicts as the meta. But nope.

        • Matt Gaffney says:

          Couldn’t call them “islands” in the clues since ISLAND is part of the answer.

          Also: JohnH, I’ve asked you this before, but you clearly don’t like solving metas, so why 1) solve and then 2) publicly comment on how much you dislike them?

          Big world out there…go find something you enjoy.

          • Barney says:

            So simple in retrospect.

            Can be just as easy to be awestruck after not solving a puzzle as to be awestruck solving it.

          • JohnH says:

            I hoped it was clear that here my quarrel was with the fill. I didn’t think the meta was fair, but I also said “I wouldn’t penalize it for the latter since I’m so out of touch with metas.”

  5. hibob says:

    I went over this one for a couple of hours, found all the islands pretty quickly, but never thought to just add the numbers together. i gasped and then laughed when I saw Conrad’s spreadsheet.
    I appreciate the geography lesson and enjoyed the puzzle.
    also appreciate The Running Mates.

  6. Mary Flaminio says:

    Excellent puzzle. Learn from Gaffney all the time. Wished I had solved it!

  7. Joella D Hultgren says:

    You didn’t need to complete the grid to get the meta….just look at the clues.
    It tells you to find 23 “theme” answers, and all you need is to see the 23 clues indicating the islands. Add up the numbers of the clues.
    You don’t need to fill in the grid, you don’t need to know what the islands are.
    One big red herring.
    It’s not a crossword puzzle, it’s just a puzzle.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Theoretically in retrospect, but not in real life. You’d need to know a lot of trivia since some of them are not obviously islands from the clue.

  8. Matt M. says:

    Am trying to, but cannot truly understand any reaction other than ‘wow.’ What an amazing idea and feat of contruction, and one of my favorite aha moments ever.

  9. Jeff Jardine says:

    Halfway through the grid I said to myself, “I bet the answer is Thousand IslandS dressing!”
    Which is a three word phrase that totals… 23 letters. I added the numbers of each of the 23 individual island clues every which way trying to get the right 23 letters out of them.

    It wasn’t until I googled “Thousand IslandS dressing” the next day that I discovered that the word island is not pluralized in the foodstuff. I had always pluralized it, probably due to a childhood visit to the Thousand Islands region in the St. Lawrence (after which the dressing is named). Adding all 23 clue numbers came shortly afterwards.

    Brilliant puzzle!

  10. Ellen Nichols says:

    This meta just proves YMMV. I found it to be one of the easier metas. I did have to set the puzzle aside. And needed a couple or three of Googles to correct one island name (DELOS) and confirm RAB is an island. (And translate GELB for verification). When I was adding up the clue numbers I kept thinking this will never get to 1000, as I had already sussed out the answer. Of course, I’m old enough to have ordered Thousand Island Dressing. You can still order it at Perkins, maybe some seafood places.

  11. Daisy says:

    I noticed that there are exactly 7 “C’s” in the completed grid. While that led to some unfortunate rabbit holes and a lot of map-staring, once I added up the numbers it ultimately assured me that Thousand Island Dressing was the answer…because Thousand Island Dressing is made by “Seven Seas.” Was this a coincidence or something Matt did intentionally?

  12. Louis D says:

    Incredibly impressive construction.

    I didn’t get it, but I think one thing that might have helped me is if 1A read “Put smaller numbers together to get a larger number, as you’ll do 22 times here.” Since with 23 numbers, you’ll do 22 addition operations.

    Since it said “as you’ll do with 23 answers here,” I got hung up on thinking that I would do one addition operation for each of the 23 islands (in some way that I hadn’t figured out yet).

  13. JPL says:

    This has to be one of my favorite metas since I started solving ~a year ago.

    What’s the record for most theme answers in a grid? Seems like this one must come close…

  14. Nancy Lobb says:

    Amazing construction!!! I can’t imagine how in the world you could do that, Matt!!!
    I did get the right answer but it took me awhile… Lots of islands I had never heard of and then there were the 23 3-letter words I diverged on for awhile… Great puzzle. Thanks for all the enjoyment you provide a lot of people each week.

  15. Tony Zito says:

    Weird one that I solved but didn’t think I’d actually found the (whole) mechanism. (And for some reason when I added the clue numbers I got 979 instead of 1000, but figured “close enough.”)

  16. Mike W says:

    Brilliant puzzle – not only getting 23 islands to fit into the puzzle but also aligning them to have the corresponding clue numbers add to 1000. I gave it 5 stars but have one recommended change to the lower right corner – Revise 62 Down as Entebbe event and 75 Across as Popular baby girl’s name.

  17. Dan Seidman says:

    Add me to the list of solvers completely blown away by this construction. A real tour de force. I had a good idea what number I was going to come up with when I added them, but I still had to see for myself that it worked out.

  18. Bill Katz says:

    It did take me some work to determine that I had exactly 23 places, and they were all islands, but once I added them up and go the even thousand, that’s when the “this can’t be a coincidence” kicked in. I put it down for a few minutes and got the “aha!” This must have been very difficult to construct, fitting exactly 1000 island-clue numbers. Bravo!

  19. Gideon says:

    Congratulations to Conrad for picking up these reviews! And thanks Laura for all your work here in the past and future!

  20. Neal says:

    Getting 23 theme answers packed so densely into a puzzle blows my mind.
    Getting the sum of their clue numbers to equal exactly 1000, obliterates my soul.
    My aha moment was well earned.
    A brilliant puzzle, Matt!

  21. Barry says:

    Great puzzle and meta, both of which I was fortunate to solve. What gave me pause was that I saw no conformation that the third word was dressing, and the three word contain a total of 22 letters (I was expecting 23). But the only other third word I could think of was PLEASE, as in thousand island, please, and that has less letters, so I threw caution to the island breezes.

  22. Jay Livingston says:

    Matt, I wonder if you can tell us how he went about constructing this one. Did you do the addition first, selecting numbers that would add to 1000, and then find islands to fill those spaces? Of did you start with a rough idea of where the islands would go but then making adjustments as you went along, If so, did that mean keeping the other fill words flexible enough that the could become islands or non-islands with a change of one or two letters?

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Well I’m always looking for a new mechanism, and I came up with this idea of adding up certain clue numbers to get some large number that would clearly point to the meta answer. Clue numbers have been used in many ways of course but AFAIK not like this, so I set about looking for an answer.

      Thousand Island Dressing came to mind quickly and, as surprisingly often happens, the first idea turns out to be the best one. That all the relevant entries would be islands seemed like a good way to distinguish them as theme, and 1,000 seemed like a good number to aim for — high enough to be impressive and unmistakably correct, but low enough to be doable….

      …or was it? My first few tries got me to the high 500s IIRC. Wavered back and forth between “this is never going to work” and “this could work” which is common when writing metas especially when you aim for the sweet spot of “just barely worked” AKA “I can’t believe that worked.” Thought of other ideas with lower numbers but 1,000 and islands was too good and nothing else I could come up with was even close.

      Went to bed two different times that night (once with the islands in the high 600s and then once in the high 700s) but then couldn’t stop wondering if it was doable so went back to it again and again until it finally agreed to work. Lots of tinkering until suddenly “voila.”

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