The 2020 Orca Awards

Welcome to the 10th Annual Orca Awards, honoring outstanding achievement in crossword construction and editing from puzzles published in 2020! Winners in ten different categories will be announced after the jump.

Anagram fans are quick to point out that Orcas anagrams to Oscar, and longtime readers will remember that the Orca Awards are usually released on the same day as the Academy Awards broadcast. But looking ahead to this weekend, there’s already the virtual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament taking place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Rather than cram even more crossword content into your weekend, we’re making like Greenpeace and releasing the Orcas early. So join us for a look back at the highlights from a year we may not otherwise want to revisit anytime soon.

Lest anyone think the Orcas are a product of a nomination and voting process that takes almost four months, it’s not. It’s one person’s essay about some really great crosswords. Nominees were selected from solving over 1,700 crosswords and variety puzzles from a variety of sources, but certainly not all of the outlets out there. One of the great things about Crossworld today is that there are So. Many. Venues. But I didn’t get to them all–not even close. No doubt some of your favorite puzzles from 2020 won’t get mentioned in this post; that’s just how it is. If you feel a certain puzzle was snubbed, please feel free to give information about the puzzle in the Comments section, so other readers can appreciate it too.

In the early years of the Orcas, nominees were selected based on the star ratings system used on this site. For this year and the past few years, however, the star ratings were consulted only to make sure I wasn’t missing a puzzle universally loved by readers. So although you’ll see the occasional reference to star ratings in this writeup, don’t let that lead you to believe those ratings were determinative. What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that no data, formulae, or mathematical models were harmed in the making of this year’s post.

To the awards!

BEST EASY CROSSWORD OF 2020: “Muted Tones,” by Pao Roy (AVCX, December 9)

Four famous colorful songs FADE / OUT at the end, and this grid follows suit by fading their colors. The [1970 Jimi Hendrix hit] is “Purple Haze,” for example, but in this grid it’s LAVENDER HAZE. Likewise, “Paint it Black,” the [1966 Rolling Stones hit] turns to PAINT IT GRAY, the [1967 Van Morrison hit], “Brown-Eyed Girl,” changes to TAN-EYED GIRL, and the [1983 UB40 hit], “Red Red Wine,” fades to PINK PINK WINE.

The grid shines with interesting answers like NERD PROM, MICROMANAGE, I KNOW, LEAVE IT, some yummy MILANOS, and LA LIGA. The real non-thematic stars, though, are the clues for POP A WHEELIE ([Get high on one’s hog?]) and FIGLEAF ([Cover of the Bible?]).

A simple-to-grok theme, sparkling fill, and fun clues—that’s all you can want from an easy crossword. Keep an eye on Pao Roy, one of the many new voices on the scene; no doubt you’ll soon come to love that byline.

Other outstanding easy crosswords from 2020 meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • Untitled, by Christina Iverson and Jeff Chen (NYT, January 1) (Y2K is the hint to MAKO CLINIC, KELP REVIEWS, FINDING DORK, and END OF STORK)
  • Untitled, by Rich Proulx (NYT, February 12) (circled letters in LOVE CONQUERS ALL spell out VENUS, the goddess of love; likewise there’s HADES in DEATH AND TAXES, THOR in THUNDER STORMS, and ARES in WAR TO END ALL WARS)
  • “Two Peas in a Pod,” by Alan Massengill (Universal, February 14) (you find double-Ps inside of entries that begin and end with the letters in POD: POPPYSEED, POISON-TIPPED, POWER-NAPPED, POPPED IN A DVD, and PUPPYHOOD)
  • Untitled, by Erik Agard (NYT, March 11) (CUTIE PIE, BEEFCAKE, EYE CANDY, and STUD MUFFIN all clued as [Hot food?] in a grid stuffed with fab fill like BOUGIE, LATINX, GAYMER, RAN LAPS, and HATES ON)
  • “Changing Positions,” by Tom Pepper (Universal, June 24) (add a space in common words and you get instructions for certain people: PLACE BO, CAN TINA, BAN ANA, PICK LES, and so on)
  • Untitled, by Nancy Stark and Will Nediger (LAT, July 17) (IMITATION OF LIFE is the revealer for three entries that eschew organic for synthetic: ASTROTURF HOPPER, ASPARTAME-COATED, and POLYESTER MATHER)
  • Untitled, by Zhouqin Burnikel (NYT, July 21) ([20-20, e.g.] is a TIE SCORE, [“20/20,” e.g.] is a NEWS MAGAZINE, [20:20, e.g.] is a RATIO, [20/20, e.g.] refers to one measure of VISUAL ACUITY, and [2020, e.g.] is a LEAP YEAR—not the only “2020 tribute puzzle” we will see in this post)
  • Untitled, by Anne Marie Crinnion (NYT, August 31) (RODE SHOTGUN, ALY RAISMAN, and WHEY POWDER all start with homophones of auto paths, so the revealer is CHANGE LANES; coupled with slick fill like SELL BY DATE, LMAO, and BLOODY MARY)
  • “A Few Side Notes,” by Ella Dershowitz (AVCX, September 9) (the start and end of each theme entry progresses through the musical scale: DOUBLE ENTENDRE, MISS GAY U.S. OF A., SOFIA COPPOLA, and TIMESHARE CONDO)
  • Untitled, by Enrique Henestroza Anguiano (NYT, December 8) (a construction tour-de-force in which every word on the puzzle’s perimeter has its POLAR OPPOSITE in the symmetrically opposite place)

BEST FREESTYLE CROSSWORD OF 2020: Untitled, by Kate Hawkins (NYT, August 28)

This masterpiece is Exhibit A for the case that a good themeless puzzle does not require low word counts, wide-open swaths of white squares, or an abundance of rare letters. It shows that when you infuse interesting answers throughout the grid and take the time to write clues that put up just the right amount of resistance you get a puzzle that, while solving, you wish would never end.

Look at the beautiful towers: POLISH UP between AT A LOSS and SOB STORY in the northwest; ESTROGEN flanked by MEET CUTE and THAT’S ME in the southeast. Then there’s ICED LATTE, PYRAMID SCHEME, SHOEPRINT, GOLD TEETH, PET RAT, GEL PEN, BEET RED, TRUE CRIME, and TA-NEHISI Coates.

And then there are the clues. Some solvers moaned the puzzle was too hard for a Friday. Sure, [Get on board?] for SURF, [Sleep on it] for COT, [Gaelic name for Scotland] for ALBA, [One might be left in the dust] for SHOEPRINT, and [It’s on-again, off-again] for SWITCH are all pretty evil, but there were other clues that were there purely for entertainment, like [Some like it hopped] for ALE and [Go for the bronze?] for SUN.

Like any great themeless crossword, this one keeps you interested throughout. It’s Weintraubesque in its density of sparkle, Pascovian in its contemporary feel, and Agardian in its playful cluing. That’s a pretty impressive combination.

Other outstanding freestyle crosswords from 2020 meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • Untitled, by Andrew J. Ries (NYT, January 11) (a gorgeous central stairstep of BOLT CUTTER, BEER LEAGUE, GUARD DOGS, and PVC PIPING plus WRITE ME, GO FOR IT, BEARCLAW, IN-APP PURCHASE, and SECRET RECIPES; srsly, if you’re not subscribing to Andrew’s weekly freestyle puzzle you’re missing what are consistently the most challenging and interesting themeless puzzles out there right now)
  • Untitled, by Debbie Ellerin (LAT, March 14) (fun stuff like BUMPS OFF, BIG ASK, and IS IT EVER, together with a cluster of Zs, and super-clean stacks in every corner)
  • Untitled, by Byron Walden (Crossword Tournament From Your Couch, March 21) (the final puzzle from the massively successful extemporaneous crossword competition, an event described more fully below; the puzzle features COP SHOWS—deviously clued as [Series of crimes?]—along with FIRES OFF, HEPPLEWHITES, STEM PIPELINE, WI-FI PASSWORD, VERY EASY, TINY TOON, and LEAFER)
  • “Saturday Stumper,” by Greg Johnson (Newsday, April 11) (LIQUID ASSETS, I CALLED IT, ARCTIC FOX, SUITS ME, and other strong entries, together with perhaps the year’s most devious clue: [Water fitness class] for POTABLE)
  • Untitled, by Paolo Pasco (NYT, May 2) (this one wins Stack of the Year: FREE THINKING atop SAID NO ONE EVER atop LAND SAKES ALIVE—now that’s a way to kick off a themeless!—plus beauts like LIFE HACK, DENY DENY DENY, and ISOLATION TANK)
  • “The Crossword: Monday, May 4,” by Patrick Berry (The New Yorker, May 4) (two gorgeous quad-stacks of 9-letter answers: HOLE CARDS, I’M ON A DIET, TEST PAPER, and SLEEP MODE in one corner, and STAG PARTY, HOLLOW LOG, EMMA STONE, and DEAD HORSE in the other)
  • Untitled, by Adam Aaronson and Paolo Pasco (NYT, August 1) (crosswords meet spelling bees with Duke Coach Mike KRZYZEWSKI and KYRGYZSTAN, along with fresh fill like I DIDNT CATCH THAT, PLAY WITHIN A PLAY, I’M HONORED, HOT SHOWER, SMART HOME, I RESIGN, and ‘SCUSE ME)
  • Untitled, by Nam Jin Yoon (NYT, August 14) (everywhere you look you find goodness in this one: KAMA SUTRA, AT IT AGAIN, FLAT WHITE, LAWYER UP, EYE OPENER, LIFE’S WORK, and DON’T STARE, to name just some)
  • “The Crossword: Friday, August 28,” by Robyn Weintraub (August 28) (just another Robyn Weintraub themeless, which means it’s one of the best; highlights include KINDA-SORTA, ESCAPE PLAN, BLAZE A TRAIL, SWEET DREAMS, THAT’S THAT, THIS SIDE UP, HAPPY DANCE, SEE YA LATER, and PLEASE HOLD)
  • Untitled, by Caitlin Reed and Erik Agard (NYT, September 11) (SUCKED FACE, OH FORGET IT, ESCAPE ROOM, MANGO LASSI, SLEEPY HEAD, CASH ON HAND, and FASHIONABLY LATE headline a puzzle that’s somehow even better than you would expect from the byline)
  • Untitled, by Nam Jin Yoon (NYT, November 28) (Nam Jin’s second Honorable Mention in the category stars TIME TRAVEL at 1-Across, clued as [Move to a later date, say], one of 18 entries of eight letters or more, all of which are great, like FAIR’S FAIR, ARE YOU GAME, FROG PRINCE, SMART MONEY, PITY PARTY, and TASTEBUDS)

BEST SUNDAY-SIZED CROSSWORD OF 2020: “Word Ladders,” by Sam Trabucco (NYT, September 20)

It’s one thing to see the traditional word ladder in the grid, where RISE becomes FALL. But that’s not even close to all that’s going on here. Each of those circled four-letter words also functions as a ladder, as one Across answer uses the word to move down the grid while another answer uses it to move up the grid. Thus the answers RISE and FALL as needed.

For example, check out FILE in the center of the grid at 63-Down. Now notice how 62-Across starts as normal but then goes down the ladder and finishes to the right, creating PRO[FILE] PIC. Cool, right? Okay, now look at 78-Across. It too starts normally but then goes up the ladder and finishes to the right, yielding FOR TH[E LIF]E OF ME. That happens for all five components of the word ladder! The entries traveling the ladder are all really sparkly, and the nonthematic fill include goodies like BRO DATE, ALLEN IVERSON, MIXED REVIEWS, LOL CAT, and GO LIVE. This one was fun at every turn, and there were lots of them.

Other outstanding Sunday-sized crosswords from 2020 meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • “Pick Six,” by Evan Birnholz (WaPo, February 2) (the seven longest Across answers featured the same letter six times over, like the six Es in RENEE ZELLWEGER and the six Os in VOODOO ECONOMICS; read from top to bottom within the grid, the septet of sestets spells out E-N-D-Z-O-N-E, a great revealer given “pick six” is football slang for an interception returned for a touchdown)
  • “The Emoji Movie,” by Brian Kulman (NYT, February 9) (sixteen (!) movie titles are each depicted in three emojis, like (fairy)(skull and crossbones)(crocodile) for PAN, (boxing glove)(butterfly)(bee) for ALI, and (rocket)(gorilla)(Statue of Liberty) for PLANET OF THE APES)
  • “Parting Words,” by Adam Vincent (Universal, June 21) (DIVISION OF LABOR is both [Job sharing?] and a hint to figuring out a crossing entry in the puzzle, LEAF BLOWER; likewise, CHOPPED SALAD is both a [Green side] and a hint to figuring out a crossing entry, BASEBALL CARDS; plus four more equally fun entries that serve as cryptic-like hints for crossing answers)
  • “To-Do List,” by Laura Taylor Kinnel (NYT, July 5) (the puzzle that literally and figuratively TICKS ALL THE BOXES since five rebus squares contain BOX reading Across and TICK reading Down, allowing for fun entries like THAT’S THE [TICK]ET, PUTS LIP[STICK] ON A PIG, [TICK]LE THE IVORIES, and S[TICK]Y SITUATION)
  • “Space Savers,” by Pam Amick Klawitter (LAT, August 30) (common phrases containing prepositions are presented literally within the grid, so “life after death” appears as DEATH LIFE, “five degrees below zero” appears in the Downs as ZERO FIVE DEGREES, “a cut above the rest” appears in the Downs as A CUT THE REST, and so on)
  • “Turn a Loss Into a Win,” by Pao Roy (Universal, November 15) (a simple W-for-L substitution theme, but really lively theme entries like DON’T WET ME DOWN, WHOSE WINE IS IT ANYWAY, and MIDWIFE CRISIS made this a grin-inducing solve from top to bottom)
  • “Dark Secrets,” by Evan Birnholz (WaPO, November 22) (instructions with the puzzle say “the first letters of certain grid entries … spell out an apt seven-letter word;” we soon see that six strips of three black squares and one strip of five black squares should actually have letters in them, and these letters spell words that can follow “black:” CAT, LAB, OPS, ART, KEY, EYE, and DWARF; the first letter from each of those words spells CLOAKED; what makes this aces is that the letters in white squares make sense as standalone entries too; CAT, for example, comes at the end of MAR(C), ARI(A), and MIT(T) and at the front of (C)AMPS, (A)LIEN, and (T)INGE, so the only words you see in the grid are MAR, ARI, MIT, AMPS, LIEN, and INGE)

BEST TOURNAMENT CROSSWORD OF 2020: “Deal or No Deal” by Joon Pahk, Lollapuzzoola 13 (August 15)

Among the things we missed most in 2020 was the chance to convene for a crossword tournament. If you’ve been to a live tournament, you know the convivial atmosphere and sheer joy of socializing with fellow puzzle lovers. Some events, like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and the Indie 500, sat out for the year while others found a way to pivot online, no doubt inspired by the Herculean efforts of Kevin Der and Finn Vigeland in organizing a last-minute, online replacement for the ACPT called “Crossword Tournament From Your Couch.” The first-ever CTFYC attracted 1,815(!) solvers—more than two-thirds of whom were crossword tournament noobs—from the United States, Canada, Italy, Greece, Israel, Norway, and other countries. That makes it the largest crossword tournament ever. And it was organized in, like, a week.

Were it not for the success of CTFYC, it’s likely few tournaments would have found a way to move their experience online. But some took up the challenge, including Boswords and Lollapuzzoola. Luckily, although the number of tournaments was smaller than usual, there were still some terrific puzzles to entertain and vex competitors.

The standout came at Lollapuzzoola with this offering from Joon Pahk. Something hinky is happening in four rows of this puzzle. Look at the third row, for example. The clue for 17-Across is [Entranced cover], and the crossings tell us the answer is DAWNING. The clue for 18-Across is [Go own a spout]—a rather nonsensical clue in its own right—and the answer is RAINOUT. What gives? The only way to make sense of the clue and answer for 17-Across is to remove a D: change the clue to [Entrance cover] and the answer to AWNING and suddenly it all makes sense. Similarly, we need to add a D to the clue and answer for 18-Across, so the clue changes to [Go down a spout] and the answer changes to DRAIN OUT.

A similar thing happens in the seventh row: [Alarming equality] is a nonsense clue for FRIEGHT, but if you subtract an E in both places, you get [Alarming quality] as the clue for FRIGHT. And while [Grooming Wes] is a stupid clue for SHARING, if we add an E to both we get [Grooming ewes] as the clue for SHEARING.

Turns out we have to do the same thing in the ninth row (subtract an A then add an A) and the thirteenth row (subtract an L then add an L). Those added/subtracted letters, read from top to bottom, spell DEAL, thus making the title a perfect explanation for what’s happening with the theme.

This was designed as the challenging puzzle for the tournament, and it executed its role well. If you saw the theme with enough time on the clock, it helped much of the grid fall into place. But the nonthematic fill, though perhaps a bit heavy on history, put up a helluva fight. It shone with entries like ALL THAT, NO SIREE, SHOULD I, NEW HOME, NIP/TUCK, and SIC ‘EM, and tricky clues like [Small bays, e.g.] for PONIES, [Loosen, as locks] for UNPLAIT, and [Not standing] for AD HOC. A meaty challenge that allowed the cream to rise.

Honorable Mentions for Best Tournament Crossword (in order of tournament date):

  • “Raise the Roof,” by Laura Braunstein and Jesse Lansner (CTFYC, March 21) (a T-TOP is reparsed as T-TO-P in this straightforward but fun letter substitution puzzle yielding gems like PEACH FOR AMERICA, SPAYING ALIVE, and PICKLE ME ELMO)
  • “Water Picks,” by Amanda Rafkin (Boswords, July 26) (solvers went BOBBING / FOR APPLES at HALLOWEEN / PARTIES as wave-shaped arrangements of circled squares spelled out five different types of apples, from GALA and ROME to PINK LADY and GOLDEN DELICIOUS)

BEST VARIETY CROSSWORD OF 2020: “Going Out With a Bang!” by Will Nediger (Outside the Box, August 24)

If you don’t solve cryptic crosswords, you need a little background to appreciate this game-changer from Will Nediger. Normally, every clue in a cryptic crossword contains both a definition and some wordplay, but the two do not overlap. But there’s a variant sometimes known as the “and literally so” or “&lit,” where the entire clue is both a definition and wordplay. In many publications, the exclamation point is used in place of the “&lit” indicator.

You might see an “&lit” clue once every dozen or so puzzles, if that often. But in this standard cryptic puzzle, every single clue is an “&lit!” To appreciate how unusual and spectacular this is, check out this video of champion cryptic solver Mark Goodliffe tackling the puzzle (warning: if you’re triggered by the word “brilliant,” you might want to skip the video):

I mean, check out the clue for WATER POLO: [Battle involving a pair of teams and a swimming pool!]. That works as a straight definition, but notice the wordplay element too. Battle suggests WAR. That word “involves” (meaning “contains” or “includes”) “a pair of” letters in the word TEAMS. In this case, it’s the first two letters, so the “battle involving a pair of teams” gives us WATER (the letters in WAR surrounding TE). Then we’re told to add a “swimming POOL.” “Swimming” suggests an anagram, as it’s fairly synonymous with “mixing” or “moving.” Anagramming the letters of POOL gives us POLO. So the answer is WATER and POLO, or WATER POLO.

Again, the “&lit” might appear once in a blue moon. This puzzle makes it so we don’t have to wait for 36 blue moons. It’s truly extraordinary and thus richly deserving of this year’s Orca for Best Variety Crossword.

Other outstanding variety crosswords from 2020 meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • “Outside the Box Year 5 Rows Garden #21,” by Joon Pahk (Outside the Box, January 28) (the first puzzle to feature CORONAVIRUS also contained Y CHROMOSOME, STICK IT OUT, YEAR OF THE RAT, and A MILE A MINUTE)
  • “Bread Boxes,” by Patrick Berry (WSJ, February 22) (another terrific “packing crates” puzzle with a cute revealer—THE UPPER CRUST—and some kickass crate answers including ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT BUFFET and ARE WE THERE YET)
  • “Empty Set,” by Patrick Berry (WSJ, April 18) (after entering all the answers in the 13×13 grid, four squares are blank; two related words—like PLAIN and SIMPLE and SUPPLY and DEMAND—pass through each blank square wordsearch style; the blank square represents a missing letter in both words but the letter is different for each word; read the added letters from left to right and they spell first NULL and then VOID)
  • “A-to-Z Crosswords #16 of 91,” by Frank Longo and Peter Gordon (May 25) (the daily 9×9 grids containing every letter of the alphabet at least once was 2020’s version of Malaika Handa’s 7×7 experiment happening this year; this particular offering had seven grid-spanning entries like JACK SPRAT, EQUAL TIME, and CANDY COAT with just 12 total black squares)
  • “Twists & Turns,” by Andrew J. Ries (Outside the Box Variety Puzzles, July 13) (an elegant and innovative format where answers fit into the puzzle both as 9-letter “twists” that spiral inward or outward and as consecutive answers that “turn” back and forth from side to side, starting the top left corner and finishing in the bottom right)
  • “Mega Marching Bands,” by Andrew Esten (Outside the Box Variety Puzzles, July 27) (the marching bands format gets super-sized into a 15×15 format instead of the usual 13×13 grid; that may not sound like much but it allows for some really nice answers like BUSTA RHYMES, THE GOONIES, SPACE CADET, and IN THE MEANTIME)
  • “Twister,” by Patrick Berry (WSJ, September 5) (Patrick creates a grid with Rows and Twists, the latter of which spiral inward as consecutive answers are placed in the grid; but two squares in the path of each Twist must be skipped in order to make the answers fit; read the letters in the skipped squares from left to right and they spell SHE SELLS; then read the same letters from top to bottom, along with the A in the grid’s center, and they spell SEASHELLS; finally, reparse the answers in the central row (THESE and SHORE) with the same central A and you get THE SEASHORE; put it all together and you have the familiar tongue twister)
  • “Fright Club,” by Patrick Berry (WSJ, October 31) (a 13×13 grid has answers reading across and down, but ten squares contain multiple letters, and in those cases some are used only for the across answer and the others are used only for the down answer; in each case, the letters spell out “a member of our Fright Club,” which turn out to be various types of cats; the instructions tell us these letters hate to be alone, and revealer says that’s because they are SCAREDY CATS)

In case it’s not clear from this list, Patrick Berry is the Emperor of Variety Puzzles. If you haven’t purchased Containment Policy, his most recent suite of variety puzzles, stop reading this post now now and order it. I’m not sure there’s a better collection of puzzles out there, except for maybe Puzzle Masterpieces.

BEST CONTEST CROSSWORD OF 2020: “Treasure Hunt” by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #638, August 21)

The best meta crosswords look so obvious in retrospect. The instructions accompanying the puzzle say that “The Feared Pirate Captain Gridd has hidden a great piece of treasure. Are you clever enough to find it? This week’s contest answer is the missing piece of treasure.” The first hint to finding the meta answer in this puzzle comes in its title. On any treasure map deserving to be called such, “X marks the spot” of the treasure. Now note that the central 5×5 section of white squares in the solution grid contains not one but three Xs. You can dig a tunnel from those Xs to the earth’s mantle and you won’t get anything but a bad back—so what gives?

The trick was noticing that the grid had four other 5×5 sections of white squares, one in each corner. If you take the letters in the same locations as the three Xs in the central 5×5 “map,” then read those letters in order section by section from left to right, they spell out UND / ERT/ HES / EAS, or UNDER THE SEAS.

Hang on, though: the contest instructions say that the answer is “the missing piece of treasure.” UNDER THE SEAS doesn’t make sense as an answer. But it does make sense as a tip to where to find it: under the Cs! The grid has four Cs, and if you look at the letters underneath each one read them clockwise, you get RUBY, the answer! (Perhaps confusingly, if you read the letters under the Cs counterclockwise you get BURY, which might seem like a dead end or a hint to grab a shovel. But in a way BURY is almost a thematic hint that you’re going the wrong way—literally—making this red herring an extra touch of elegance.)

Just look at that grid! No weak entries, providing perfect camouflage for all the various layers to the puzzle. And yet you can’t go anywhere in the grid without bumping into something relevant to the meta. This grid, folks, is dense with theme. As Joon stated in his writeup of the puzzle, “like any good treasure hunt, there was a sequence of steps to follow, and some of the steps were harder to figure out than the others, but it was very satisfying at every step, and the final meta answer was extremely slick.” Readers agreed—it received the highest overall star rating of any puzzle with 30 or more ratings in 2020.

Other outstanding contest crosswords from 2020 meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • “Continuing Education,” by Mike Shenk (WSJ, February 6) (if you notice that the black squares between DART/OUTHIT, CORN/LLAMAS, BAY/ORACLE, TEMP/ENLIST, LOY/LAVISH, and BRA/DEISTS can be replaced with letters to spell the names of DARTMOUTH, CORNELL, BAYLOR, TEMPLE, LOYOLA, and BRANDEIS, then you have no problem seeing that the replacement letters spell the contest answer: college founder MELLON)
  • “These Go to Eleven,” by Matt Gaffney (WSJ, March 13) (the theme entries contain the bigram NA eleven times over, suggesting the refrain from the contest answer: HEY JUDE by the Beatles)
  • “Lingo for Bards,” by Lewis Dean Hyatt (Fireball, March 25) (the title suggests a cipher, and sure enough you need a DECODER RING to convert six answers in the grid to words that match their clues; to get the contest answer, the “writer [that’s] a key figure in this puzzle,” you decipher DECODER RING to make TOM STOPPARD)
  • “Questionable Humor,” by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #623, May 8) (seven punny clues also worked as non-punny clues for seven different answers in the grid, and the first letters of each of those answers, read in order from top to bottom, spelled the contest answer: DAD JOKE)
  • “Three-Four Time,” by Patrick Berry (Fireball, July 15) (All four 12-letter answers can be divided into three four-letter words, and 12 other four-letter answers in the grid have three letters in the same positions; if you read the changed letters from top to bottom and from left to right, they spell the song in ¾ time that is the contest answer: GREENSLEEVES; I’m a sucker for artsy meta answers that don’t require artsy knowledge to crack!)
  • “Less and Less,” by Mike Shenk (WSJ, August 21) (six answers in the grid are synonyms of words that end in -LESS, like how NEGLIGENT is synonymous with “reckless”; the front part of each of these -LESS words appears in the grid with an extra letter, like how “reck” appears with a D as DRECK; read those extra letters from top to bottom in the grid and they spell the contest answer: DEDUCT)
  • “Just Beyond the Surface,” by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, September) (the six long Down answers all contain the letters of WATER in consecutive, though jumbled, order—like BEAT WRITER and BARTER AWAY—and the letters on top of each of those five-letter sequences spell the word BRIDGE, yielding the contest answer: BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER)

BEST GIMMICK CROSSWORD OF 2020: “Half Off” by Will Nediger (Bewilderingly, October 8)

THE VANISHING HALF is a [2020 Brit Bennett novel, or a hint to rest of this puzzle’s Across entries]. Indeed, that’s the only Across answer to appear in its entirety in the grid; the rest have been cut in half, with either the front half or the back half in the grid. The clue for 1-Across, for example, is [People on a bus or train]. That clue works for PASSENGERS, but only the front half, PASSE, appears in the grid.

I’ll say it again: that’s the gimmick for every single Across answer save for the revealer. OPERA at 71-Across? That’s the front half of OPERATIONS, the answer to [Surgeries]. EDDIE at 19-Across? That’s not some dude—it’s the back half of CROOKED DIE, an [Object rolled by a cheating gambler]. Figuring out the missing parts of each Across answer is half the fun of solving this puzzle. (Yes, pun intended.)

What really makes the puzzle stand out is that the halves appearing in the grid look like ordinary crossword entries: THOR instead of THOROUGH, PRESS instead of DECOMPRESS, USTED instead of DISTRUSTED, and so forth. Thank heavens the Downs played normally, or I’d still be solving it!

Gimmick puzzles often rely on many subtle layers that are difficult to explain. (You’ll see some examples of that coming up shortly.) But this one is so simple in concept: only put half of each answer in the grid. You can’t get more elegant than that. Now step back and think about how you would construct the grid. You can only use words that are both legitimate standalone crossword entries and the first or second half of a longer standalone crossword entry. Where would you start? What would you do? I’ll tell you what I’d do: give up. Or email someone who’s whiz-bang at curating a wordlist.

I’m sure someone could generate a list of suitable words, and I could probably go through the list to pull out halves that, while technically valid, don’t exactly excite. (Yes, ALER is half of SQUEALER, but Crossword Twitter—copyright Satan, all rights reserved—equates ALER with VOLDEMORT, so I ain’t touching it.) But that would leave a wordlist much smaller than the one I normally use to make puzzles, so even then I’d have to design a grid that could accommodate the shorter wordlist. Will did all of this—probably by himself—and produced a grid that shows zero sign of strain. Not only that, he worked in long Downs like ME TOO ERA, EDGELORD, and HANGER ON. No question, this puzzle is half off SPECIALIZATION.

Other outstanding gimmick crosswords from 2020 meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • Untitled, by Rich Proulx (Universal, January 1) (black squares in the shape of 2020 served as the clue for THE YEAR OF THE RAT and TV NEWS PROGRAM)
  • Untitled, by Alex Eaton-Salners (NYT, January 9) (black squares formed four Ts in the grid that were then used in answering the corresponding Downs—one of two amazing T-shaped themes from 2020)
  • Untitled, by Erik Agard and Jeff Chen (NYT, January 16) (five answers TAKE A KNEE phonetically, so ALONG turns into NIA LONG, BROW becomes BROWNIE, GERMAN becomes JOURNEYMAN, GEOLOGY morphs into GENEOLOGY, and HUBBY becomes HONEYBEE)
  • “Switch-Hitters,” by Joanne M. Sullivan (Chronicle Crossword, February 7) (a mini-Schrodinger puzzle in which both BOOK CLUB and FILM CLUB works at the revealer for works containing a synonym for “club” that were both books and films—IRONWEED, MATCHSTICK MEN, and ZORBA THE GREEK)
  • Untitled, by Joe Deeney (NYT, February 20) (a rebus in which 8 stood for ATE in the Across entries and as “OO” in the Downs, since, you know, an 8 looks like a stacked pair of Os)
  • “You Wear It Well,” by Francis Heaney (AVCX, June 17) (NOSE, LIPS, and CHIN are covered by a MASK, so IT’S NO SECRET becomes IT’S MA SKCRET, JOHN PHILIP SOUSA turns into JOHN PHIMAS KOUSA, and GROUCHINESS changes to GROUMASKESS; leave it to Francis to give us something amusing about the state of the world and a good reminder of how to wear a mask properly)
  • “Cross-References,” by Damon Gulczynski (Fireball, June 24) (the clues [See through], [See out], [See in], and [See off] are actually indicators to look for clues that start with those words; so if you pair [See through] with [Through line], it makes sense that the answer to [See through] is QUEUE)
  • Untitled, by Sid Sivakumar (NYT, October 22) (the trigram R-U-N appears three times atop blank white squares, those blank square sequences clued as [What’s theorized to have preceded the Big Bang] (nothing), [What polar opposites have in common] (nothing), and [What’s uttered by a mime] (nothing), all capped off with a great revealer: RUNNING ON EMPTY)
  • “Squeeze Plays,” by Andy Kravis and Wyna Liu (Fireball, December 9) (each theme answer is clued simply as [Squeeze play]; that’s because the answer is the title of a play that squeezes two letters into each which square, and you need both letters in each square for the crossing)

BEST CLUE OF 2020: [Member state?] for BONER, in “Themeless #10,” by Claire Rimkus (ed. Stella Zawistowski) (The Inkubator, August 6)

The puzzle in which this clue appeared is chock full of other goodies like [Butcher types?] for STUDS, [Question posed to us weekly by Us Weekly] for WHO WORE IT BETTER, and [Drives out of town?] for OFFROADS. Unsurprising, given both constructor and editor. But this specific clue is, as Erdos would say, “straight from the book.” It’s concise. It’s misleading but fair. It’s naughty but not crass. The Inkubator knows how to craft a clue that’s just edgy enough without going too far and making a mess. And this time the result is the Best Clue of 2020.

Other outstanding clues from 2020 crosswords meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • [Kids pan in the kitchen] for ICK, in “Aries Freestyle #3.5,” by Andrew J. Ries (Aries Puzzles, February 5)
  • [One way to speak up without speaking up?] for SILENT PRAYER, in “Outside the Box Year 5 Rows Garden #24,” by Joon Pahk (Outside the Box, February 18)
  • [Zero personality] for OPERATOR, in “Is This Thing On?,” by Enrique Henestroza Anguiano (ed. David Steinberg) (Universal, February 27)
  • [Rule that keeps you from spelling weirdly?] for I BEFORE E, in Untitled, by Debbie Ellerin (ed. Rich Norris) (LAT, March 14)
  • [Robin ’hood?] for GOTHAM, in “The Last Dance,” by Evan Birnholz (WaPo, May 17)
  • [One who knows how to buy and sell an oil well?] for ART DEALER, in “A-to-Z Crosswords #74 of 91,” by Frank Longo and Peter Gordon (July 22)
  • [Diet that lets you eat just about any old thing?] for PALEO, in “E for Effort,” by Byron Walden (ed. Ben Tausig) (AVCX, July 22)
  • [Ball in a gym, maybe] for PROM, in Untitled, by Claire Rimkus and Erik Agard (ed. Will Shortz) (NYT, July 31)
  • [Faux pas?] for TV DADS, in “Outside the Box Year 5 Rows Garden #49,” by Joon Pahk (Outside the Box, August 11)
  • [Thing to which one might say “OK, boomer”] for SST, in “What’s in a Game,” by Patrick Blindauer (ed. Francis Heaney) (AVCX, August 12)
  • [Head for the backcountry?] for OUTHOUSE, in “Play by Play,” by Amy Schecter and Christina Iverson (ed. Juliana Tringali Golden) (The Inkubator, September 10)
  • [Fans of the Bible?] for PALM FRONDS, in Untitled, by Caitlin Reid and Erik Agard (ed. Will Shortz) (NYT, September 11)
  • [Give 100%, maybe] for OVERTIP, in “Aries Freestyle #3.37,” by Andrew J. Ries (Aries Puzzles, September 16)
  • [Staff you wouldn’t want to employ?] for TEN-FOOT POLE, in Untitled, by Robyn Weintraub (ed. Will Shortz) (NYT, September 19)
  • [Like someone who’s just not buying it?] for IMMORTAL, in “Outside the Box Year 6 Rows Garden #4,” by Joon Pahk (Outside the Box, September 22)
  • [Part of a train that usually has more than seven letters] for MAIL CAR, in “Mixed Foursomes,” by Trip Payne (ed. Mike Shenk) (WSJ, November 5)
  • [Worthless collector’s items?] for BAD DEBTS, in “Relative Conjunction,” by Tracy Bennett (ed. Peter Gordon) (Fireball, November 11)
  • [They come with compact cars (2 wds.)] for TRAIN SETS, in “Labyrinth,” by Mike Shenk (WSJ, November 14)


Will NedigerWill’s work is consistently excellent, but he was exceptionally prolific in 2020. You’ve seen him rack up two Orcas already in this post: Best Variety Crossword and Best Gimmick Crossword. Constructor of the Year gives him the hat trick.

When you see Will Nediger’s byline, you know you’re getting a quality puzzle that will often make you chuckle and shake your head in admiration. His “how did he do that?” constructions suggest he’s drinking from the same creative well as Patrick Berry. I’ll have what he’s having.

On technical merit alone, Will very much deserves this recognition. But that’s not all to his credit. Will is also a good crossword citizen. He is a staunch supporter of the indie crossword scene. Every month he recaps his favorite indie puzzles on his website, shining a light on puzzles that, in many cases, would otherwise be overlooked. His summaries are lively, insightful, and compelling. Chris King got it right on at least one count a while back on Twitter:

Further on the citizenship front, Will contributed to the wildly successful Grids for Good packet and actively encourages aspiring constructors to get involved in the craft. In the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, a Facebook resource for people from underrepresented groups who are interested in making crosswords, Sid Sivakumar thanked Will, along with Erik Agard and Nate Cardin, for their “exacting guidance, cultural sensitivity, and optimism,” qualities “not only boons to newer crossword constructors, but also qualities we’d all do well to emulate in society at large.”

It’s nice when really good puzzles come from really good people. Warm congratulations to Will on this third well-deserved Orca! Please keep the puzzles coming.

Honorable Mentions for 2020 Constructor of the Year (listed alphabetically by surname):

  • Patrick Berry – He nabbed Constructor of the Year honors in 2011 and 2015, and he’s been nominated every other year. He finished second on the list of highest average star-rating by constructor in 2020 (this was not a formal list, just one I created using the highest rated puzzles from the year). His variety crosswords are epic. The man is on everyone’s Mount Rushmore of American Puzzles. It’s for these reasons and even more that Patrick will be honored this weekend with the MEmoRiaL Award (that’s the Merl Reagle Memorial Award) for lifetime achievement at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
  • Evan Birnholz – Evan continued to exhibit all of the qualities that won him this award last year. Cranking out a top-shelf Sunday-sized puzzle every week is no ordinary construction gig, even though Evan makes it look easy. He doesn’t shy away from pushing his solvers with themeless and meta puzzles, but he never resorts to obscurity. His commitment to quality fill shows in every puzzle. Plus, Evan spearheaded the Grids for Good puzzle packet containing a slew themed, themeless, variety, and meta puzzles that raised money for coronavirus relief and Black Lives Matter.
  • Zhouqin Burnikel – If there’s a more prolific constructor alive today, that person is using pseudonyms. Case in point: Zhouqin’s byline appeared nearly three times as often as the next most prolific constructor at the USA Today crossword in 2020, and you see her work in all the other venues too. Whether a themed early-week offering, a knotty themeless, or a super-sized Sunday, a Burnikel puzzle always delivers.
  • Matt Gaffney – As you probably guessed, Matt finished first on that list of highest average star-rating by constructor. He continuous to churn out quality (sometimes diabolical) meta crosswords, both for his own site and for the Wall Street Journal, further expanding the legion of Gaffney-ites.
  • Robyn Weintraub – All hail the Queen of Friday! Robyn had seven published themeless puzzles in the New York Times in 2020 (plus a themed Thursday puzzle that was likewise delightful). This in a year when themeless submissions at the Times hit an all-time high. It was also in 2020 that she joined the growing stable of regulars at The New Yorker crossword, a venue that’s cornering the market on themeless construction talent.

BEST CROSSWORD OF 2020: Untitled, by Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb (NYT, February 27)

[Quantum mechanics thought experiment in which contradictory states exist simultaneously] is the (not exactly terse) clue for SCHRODINGER’S CAT, the entry running down the center of the grid. Long-time solvers recall that this has been the genesis for many crossword themes, to the point that there is such a thing as a “Schrodinger puzzle.” Here’s how the team at Crossword Hobbyist described it on their blog in 2018:

Many of us have heard of the famous thought experiment devised by Erwin Schrödinger and his theoretical cat. It is used to discuss quantum mechanics, but most people understand it in its simplest terms: if you placed a cat in a box with something deadly, you would have no way of knowing whether it’s alive or dead unless someone opened the box. This means the cat is theoretically both alive and dead.

How does that relate to crosswords? A Schrödinger puzzle, then, is a puzzle with answers that could be one answer or another. In this way, the solver has no way of knowing which answer is “right” until they solved the puzzle. That means an unsolved puzzle has two answers for one clue. Joon Pahk suggested the name. Some people also refer to these as “quantum crosswords.”

Keep in mind that this differs from a rebus. In a rebus, multiple letters appear in a single square, sometimes forming an entire word. These letters are not interchangeable, though. The answer requires all the letters.

Perhaps the most famous Schrodinger puzzle appeared in the NYT the day before the 1996 presidential election, routinely cited by Will Shortz as his favorite crossword. The [Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper(!)] is both CLINTON ELECTED and BOB DOLE ELECTED. That’s because, for example, the answer to the first crossing Down, clued as [Black Halloween animal], could be CAT or BAT.

Ben Tausig published another memorable Schrodinger puzzle in the NYT in 2016 using GENDER FLUID as the “revealer.” In that grid, eight answers in the puzzle could include either an “F” or an “M.” A Slate article on the puzzle was headlined “One of the Most Important Crosswords in New York Times History.”

So yeah, Schrodinger’s Cat has been done. A lot. Heck, even I’ve published a Schrodinger puzzle. If Schrodinger’s Cat was instead Schrodinger’sHorse, there’d be no question it’s pretty much been beaten to death.

But then came this puzzle.

Right away, you notice the grid has four two-letter answers. To quote a recent Boswords themeless puzzle, “is that even legal?” Then you realize that the answers to these four entries are all three-letter words: OMS, FEM, TOP, and TWO. So how is this supposed to work, exactly? It turns out the middle letter can appear in either the first square with the first letter or the second square with the second letter. The clues for the crossing Downs work both ways! So in 1-Down, [Sounds that can startle] can be BOOS or BOOMS, and in 12-Down, [Pronoun that can ask a question] can be WHO or WHOM.

But while the middle letter can be in either box, it cannot be in both–just as Schrodinger’s Cat cannot be both alive and dead! For added elegance, note that the middle letters, read from top to bottom, spell out M-E-O-W. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned the thematically on-brand intersecting answers of CROSS / THE BORDER and I NEED / SOME SPACE. This particularly faithful take on Schrodinger’s Cat is the definitive execution of a Schrodinger puzzle. We can now retire the concept. It can’t be done any better than this.

Readers agreed, awarding it 70(!) 5-star ratings, by far the most of any puzzle in 2020. Commenters loved the execution and appreciated that there are zero compromises in the fill despite all that’s going on in the grid. Go figure: a puzzle based on Schrodinger’s Cat is both not entirely novel and the Best Crossword of 2020.

Congratulations to Andrew and John and thanks for such a well-crafted puzzle. Puzzleheads know John and Andrew as the leaders of Boswords, a summer crossword tournament that in Pandemic Mode expanded to a Fall Themeless League and a Spring Themeless League. They worked very hard before, during, and after 2020 to keep the crossword community connected, so it feels especially good to remember and toast their impressive collaboration as the Best Crossword of 2020.

Honorable Mentions for Best Crossword of 2020 (in order of publication):

  • “Car Restoration” by Jeff Chen (Fireball, January 8). Open the puzzle and right away you’re confused: four Across entries have some letters already in the grid! The central, seven-letter entry, for example, clued as [“Land sakes!”], already has IFFF in the first four squares. To get the right answers, JEEPERS, you had to “restore” the JEEP in the first four squares; that is, you had to add the hook to I to make it a J, then add another stroke to each of the first two Fs to make them Es, and then add the hump to the F to make it a P. Likewise, CLC became the GEO in GEORGE ORWELL, CV became the GM in KING MIDAS, and LCLCL became the DODGE in L.A. DODGERS. An original theme that really gets your motor running.
  • “T Time,” by Patrick Blindauer (AVCX, February 12). Seven two-word phrases are entered into the grid in T-shapes. So the T in the Across answer BATON is the first letter in the crossing Down answer TWIRLER, giving us BATON TWIRLER. How nice that the crossing letter (the middle letter of the first word and the first letter of the second word) is also a T! IT’S TRUE, POTTY-TRAINED, MTV TWO, VOTER TURNOUT, CENTRAL TIME, and WATER TURBINE round out the theme set. That all of this is crammed into a 15×15 grid is impressive, and those four T-shaped arrangements of black squares in the grid is a touch of added elegance.
  • “A Foggy Day” by Francis Heaney (AVCX, August 5). This was a contender for Best Contest Crossword, Best Variety Puzzle, and Best Gimmick Puzzle. It was all of those and then some! Twenty-four squares in the 15×15 grid are shaded. They form four 2×3 rectangles in the middle of the grid. We’re told that they are “obscured by fog.” Using traditional Across and Down clues as well as clues for four bands of unnumbered rows and columns, we eventually come to find that the 24 squares consist of a mix of letters and black squares. If we read the letters in those shaded squares from top to bottom and left to right, they spell out HIDING IN A BLIND. The coup de grace? The black squares in each rectangle form a Braille letter, and those letters spell D-U-C-K. Add in thematically related entries like CAMOUFLAGE and TAKES COVER and you have the best duck hunting expedition ever.
  • “Relative Conjunction,” by Tracy Bennett (Fireball, November 11). Hey, another Schrodinger puzzle! This one uses the gimmick to reveal four sets of relatives who can share the same clue and most of the same letters, like brothers JIMMY DORSEY and TOMMY DORSEY and sisters JUNE and RUTH POINTER. The Schrodinger squares are placed where the letters are different, like the first two letters of the Dorsey brothers and three of the four letters in the first name of each Pointer sister. I’m so excited! Consider the Dorseys, for example. The first Schrodinger square contains a J or a T; the answer is [J/T]OKER, clued as [One of a trio of rhyming personas in a 1973 Steve Miller Band hit]. The second contains an I or an O; the answer is L[I/O]VELY, clued as [What some might call “Gossip Girl” star Blake]. Fitting four pairs of relatives with 10 Schrodinger squares in a 16×16 grid demonstrates Tracy’s serious constructing chops.

And with that, the 2020 Orca Awards conclude. Thanks, as always, to Amy for hosting and encouraging the Orca Awards and to Evad for providing much-needed technical support. Having written these posts for a decade now, it’s clear that the crossword landscape is both more vast and diverse–and we are so much the richer for it. Because of that, though, it feels awkward that a white cis male north of age 50 continues to write this annual essay. So while this will be my final Orcas post, I’m hopeful others with lots of different perspectives will continue the tradition. I look forward to reading their writeup!

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15 Responses to The 2020 Orca Awards

  1. Me says:

    Congratulations to all! In the write up for Best Clue, there is an example of [Butcher types?]=STUDS. Can someone please explain? I’m not getting it.

    • Dan F says:

      More butch; studlier.

      Wow, congratulations to Will Nediger! He’s always been one of the most versatile and creative puzzlemakers out there. (Which is why I asked him to write cryptics for The Browser, plugplugplug)
      And thank you to Sam for all your hard work every year, and congratulations on making a graceful exit!

      • Me says:

        Dan, thanks for the explanation! It feels like I should have seen that now that you’ve explained it, but that’s why it’s a great clue!

  2. Appreciate the nods, Sam, and thanks for the effort in putting this massive post together.

    A couple of puzzles I wanted to add off the top of my head:

    1. Regardless of what he said about the Orcas, Chris King’s “Rise and Fall” guest meta for MGWCC was a masterpiece.

    2. Rachel Fabi’s “6/1” USA Today puzzle on June 1 was super-elegant with a fun and subtle meta. I think that was just before Sally Hoelscher started her USA Today puzzle blog so I don’t know if there’s a write-up of it elsewhere. But it was a really good one.

  3. Will Nediger says:

    Wow, I’m honored – thank you!

    And I appreciate the comments on my monthly writeups too, though I think my model is exactly the same as the Orcas model – just one guy writing about some of the puzzles he likes.

  4. Kate Hawkins says:

    Wow! Thanks for the nod and for the very kind words. Proud to be featured alongside such great company. And most of all, glad you enjoyed the puzzle!

  5. Alan says:

    Great write up Sam, thanks for all this.

  6. sharkicicles says:

    “The Inkubator knows how to craft a clue that’s just edgy enough without going too far and making a mess.”

    I see what you did there.

  7. Enrique says:

    Thanks, Sam, it’s an honor to be mentioned!

  8. Rich Proulx says:

    “So while this will be my final Orcas post…” Noooooo! Say it isn’t so, Sam!

  9. Carly Schuna says:

    I am so grateful and privileged to be mentored by Will Nediger — he is the BEST and so generous with his time and he 100% deserves this honor! Congrats, Will! :D

  10. Pam Klawitter says:

    Thanks for the mention, Sam! Much appreciated.

Comments are closed.