WSJ Contest — Friday, May 14, 2021

Grid: 30 minutes; meta: slept on it  


Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Following Directions” — Conrad’s review

This week we’re told, The answer to this week’s contest crossword is an eight-letter word. There are seven starred themers:

  • [17a: *”From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere” writer]: DRSEUSS
  • [18A: *Sounded tipsy]: SLURRED
  • [34A :*Wetlands flora]: REEDS
  • [38A: *Suit yourself?]: DRESS
  • [42A: *Uses a blowtorch, perhaps]: WELDS
  • [57A: *Capital of Saxony]: DRESDEN
  • [60A: *Made bare]: DENUDED

Noting the title, I spotted this entry:

  • [13d: Square ___ (good place to start)]: ONE

My initial hunch was that this was a “trace a path on the grid” meta, starting at “square one.” Fruitless attempts to find the path followed. I tried pulling the compass direction letters from each themer, for example: DRSEUSS (SE, S, S), SLURRED (S, E), etc. Finding gibberish, I tried Up, Down, Left, Right (DRSEUSS contains D, R, and U). Using these body relative (aka egocentric) coordinates revealed more gibberish.

I punted and went to bed. Checking my notes in the morning: the themers used a constrained set of letters, with lots of D’s, E’s, and S’s. Protip: if you solve using .PUZ format: check out mechapuzzle. Among other great features: it provides a frequency analysis of each grid letter.

Frequency analysis often is irrelevant to solving a meta, but it’s sometimes helpful (so it never hurts to check). In this case frequency analysis confirmed that there were far more D’s, E’s, and S’s in the grid than normal, which seemed relevant since the themers were responsible for that skew. Convinced I had the right rabbit hole (with the wrong execution): I doubled down on tracing a path. My “aha” moment came when I realized that each themer was exclusively comprised of the eight compass and body relative letters: NSEW, UDRL. In reference to a crossword grid: up and north are synonyms; same for down and south, etc. Tracing a path that begins in the North West (Upper Left) corner meant South East (Down Right) would probably feature prominently, explaining the skewed letter frequency.

This insight allowed me to locate the trail. Starting at 1a (“M”), I followed the directions in DRSEUSS and went Down Right,  South, East, Up, South and South, ending at “E.” I then followed SLURRED’s directions, going South, Left, Up, Right, Right, East and Down, ending at “A.” Continuing that process revealed MEANDERS, our meta solution.

This is a truly impressive feat of construction by Mike: there is a lot going on in that grid. I was convinced I had the right idea and struggled to find the proper execution, resulting in a great “aha” moment when I finally did. My mistake was assuming that compass and body relative letters were mutually exclusive. I find it interesting how we invent imaginary meta rules and then struggle (and sometimes fail) to solve the meta as a result.

I’ll leave you where we started: on Square One.





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18 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, May 14, 2021

  1. It’s totally possible it was just a coincidence, but after the M of square one, I took ENDS at 52D as another hint to then take the letters you end on after following the directions of each starred word.

    Really impressive, this one.

  2. Jon Forsythe says:

    Never even close on this one.

  3. Tom Deneau says:

    It was interesting that the path ended on REDNESS which is also composed of all directional letters. And in down clues we had ESSEN, NED, SUDS and URN. With ESSEN even being all compass points.

    • Joella D Hultgren says:

      I also wondered about REDNESS, at the bottom, right of the grid. It is composed of all “directional” letters, and contains the final letter of MEANDERS.
      Great puzzle. Didn’t take long to see the “directional” letters in the grid theme entries.

  4. Sharkicicles says:

    So the crossword gods giveth and they taketh away: this is the quickest I’ve ever solved a WSJ. But now I can’t even do the week 2 MGWCC.

  5. Barney says:

    Unholy smokes.

    (One of my favoritest Tom Petty songs, though, so there’s that.)

  6. Louis D says:

    How do you solve WSJ puzzles in .PUZ format? I’ve often wondered if there is some workaround way to do this since they don’t provide the .PUZ file.

    • Flinty Steve says:

      I download them here, under the “Today’s Puzzles” tab.

      • Michael in Chelsea says:

        If it is possible to open the files in “Today’s Puzzles” in Puzzazz on my phone, could someone explain how?

        This was a really fun and impressively constructed contest puzzle.

        • pannonica says:

          Use the menu drop-down in the upper left.

          Alternative: select ‘Desktop’ version from the buttons on the bottom of the page.

          p.s. What’s Puzzazz?

        • BarbaraK says:

          For the WSJ puzzles, you have to rename the file to not include wsj, otherwise Puzzazz thinks it shouldn’t open it.

  7. Billy Boy says:

    The comments at WSJ ought to be interesting in this one.

    Puzzles are not my life, so I have zero idea how to give an opinion on this one.

    I think very few WSJ subscribers got this one. Had*any clue* on this one.

  8. JohnH says:

    I wasn’t even close. I started with the idea that the short central entry DRESS was awfully close to DRESDEN, but with the last letter becoming DEN, which then led the next themer, DENUDED. But after repeated tries over two days, I just couldn’t generalize this enough. It also occurred to me to look for letters in the themers not quote shared, like that S, hoping there were the promised eight, but no go. And so I gave up.

    There just weren’t that many W’s among the themers, and the N’s there were much outnumbered by N’s elsewhere, so the compass points didn’t quite stand out, especially as directions for the solver. I also didn’t seize on SQUARE ONE or connect it to the 1A/1D square.

  9. Neal says:

    Did my fair share of rabbit holes before landing on the correct scheme. I’m sure it pained Mike to no end to have the pathway land one square shy of the bottom right corner. (Let it go, Mike, it’s still a thing of beauty!)

    I totally agree with the observation that we will make up rules for the meta before we’ve solved it and struggle against them even though we have no basis for it. For me and my original pathway attempt, I kept skipping over black squares and getting gibberish because for some reason to my mind “squares without letters in them don’t count.” Silly brain.

  10. Tony Zito says:

    Wow, what a stunning feat of construction…

  11. Mikie says:

    Just got around to looking this one up. Wow.

Comments are closed.