WSJ Contest — Friday, August 20, 2021

Grid: 20 minutes; meta: 30 minutes  


Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Starting Positions” — Conrad’s review.

This week we’re told: The answer to this week’s contest crossword is a five-letter word. I didn’t see obvious potential theme entries beyond the long acrosses FOOTSTOOLS and OUTERSPACE. I got distracted by the clue for DARTS for a bit (clued as “Game with a numbered board”), trying to tie that to the title. That turned out to be a red herring.

Two techniques helped me solve this relatively quickly: turn to the clues when the grid yields no signal, and Mike’s metas often use the central (or final) horizontal entry as a bonus themer or clue. I focused on FARGO and noticed the odd clue: “Significant eastern city of North Dakota.” The first letter of each word in the clue spelled SECOND, and I was off to the… well, hold that thought. Five entries followed the same pattern, spelling FIRST through FIFTH, here they are (in grid order):

  • [17a: Furniture items for the house]: FOOTSTOOLS (Fifth)
  • [25a: Tune heard in “Reservoir Dogs”]: COCONUT (Third)
  • [36a: Significant eastern city of North Dakota]: FARGO (Second)
  • [44a: Foe in Roddenberry’s “Star Trek”]: ROMULAN (First)
  • [53a: Few of us reach this height]: OUTERSPACE (Fourth)

Next step: take the first letter from ROMULAN, the second letter from FARGO, etc. In hindsight: I was quite fortunate by listing them in numeric order in my notes, avoiding a large trap:


WSJ Contest – 08.13.21 – Solution

WSJ Contest – 08.13.21 – Solution

  • First: (R)OMULAN
  • Second: F(A)RGO
  • Third: CO(C)ONUT
  • Fourth: OUT(E)RSPACE
  • Fifth: FOOT(S)TOOLS

That spells RACES, our meta solution, connecting to the title “Starting Positions.” I rechecked my work before submitting and noticed that the letters spelled SCARE in grid order. I’m fairly confident that RACES is the correct solution (based on the title) but I can imagine that many solvers submitted SCARE (which is also a five-letter word), not thinking to try to put the letters in numeric order. A solving pal of mine did exactly that. It seems like this ambiguity could have been avoided with a slightly different clue, such as The answer to this week’s contest crossword is a five-letter plural noun.

I’m curious how everyone fared on this: were you team RACES or team SCARE (or perhaps another team entirely)? Please let me know in the comments. Mike referenced the Reservoir Dogs Soundtrack in his clue for COCONUT, so here’s another song from that album: we’ll end with this Soul Train performance of I Gotcha by Joe Tex, featuring dancer Damita Jo Freeman.


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12 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, August 20, 2021

  1. I submitted RACES, although I’d thought SCARE could be somewhat plausible not just because of the grid order, but because it’s a synonym for a different meaning of “start” (as in, to startle someone). Still, RACES is much more logical because of the full title “Starting Positions,” so I didn’t have that much doubt about it.

  2. jefe says:

    Never had a chance. Was distracted by DATELINE and ATELIERS both having the ATELI substring.

  3. Seth says:

    I submitted SCARE. If course I submitted SCARE, because things happen in grid order in metas. I was confused as to how that pertained to the meta. SCARE is definitely as legit of an answer as RACES.

    And once again, Mike’s meta uses the clues! I think my gripe with clue metas is that they put so little strain on the grid. If you think about it, for this meta, there are only 5 squares in the puzzle that need to be fixed. The rest of the grid could have been ANYTHING. In fact, those squares don’t even really need to be fixed. Go grab any themeless puzzle, rewrite five clues like this to spell any 5-letter word you want, and boom, you have a meta.

  4. Matt says:

    team SCARE here. Same reason as Seth above, but also because I didn’t think to reorder them.

  5. Dan Seidman says:

    I submitted SCARE. If that hadn’t been a word, I’m sure I would have figured out the next step, but since it was it didn’t occur to me that another step was needed.

  6. cyco says:

    I didn’t solve the contest at all this time around, but my two cents is that RACES should be the only correct answer. When the meta involves the words “first,” “second,” “third,” etc., it should be evident that the relevant letters should be used in that order.

  7. Conrad says:

    FYI: from Mike Miller of the WSJ: “We had a particularly large turnout for an alternative answer: SCARE, with 52 (or about 8%). The intended answer placed the 5 key letters in the order suggested by their clues’ initials (the clue spelling FIRST came first, etc.) but if you circle the 5 letters, they spell SCARE in grid order from top to bottom. Which is reasonable, if slightly less elegant, and our puzzle team agrees we would have considered SCARE a correct answer had we randomly selected it.”

  8. Larry Baldauf says:

    I did look at the clues for hints, but was distracted by “Put in alphabetical order, say”, “Story starter”, “Alphabet ender”, and “Arbitrary order”, all of which could be related to “positions”. I never thought at looking at the first letters of the words of random clues.

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