WSJ Contest — Friday, November 5, 2021

Grid: 20 minutes; meta: DNF  


Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Three by Three” — Conrad’s review.

This week we’re looking for an event for people of letters. I made this fateful statement last week: This puzzle proved to be one of the most challenging WSJ puzzles in recent memory. I was able to solve last week after teaming up my friends, but we were equally stumped by this one. There were four 12-letter theme entries, each comprised of four three-letter words:

WSJ Contest – 11.05.21

WSJ Contest – 11.05.21

  • [19a: Actor Mineo dined on a certain fish’s stomach muscles? (1,5)] SALATEEELABS
  • [26a: Animator Avery purchased hair product for evildoer Luthor? (2,7)]: TEXGOTLEXGEL
  • [43a: Author Grafton approves colorant for a reference work’s cover? (3,4)]: SUEOKSOEDDYE
  • [53a: Demand that a rap star fire an unproductive snake from his company? (6,8)]: AXEBADBOADRE

1a was also thematic: FRENCH (“Language in which you’ll need to know how to pronounce two three-letter words”). MEAN (63a: “2 for 1 and 3, say”) seemed potentially relevant.

I tried to build 3×3 grids of the three-letter entries and got nowhere. Four-by-four (four theme entries with four words) seemed relevant. I tried to stack those in various ways, and briefly pondered 3d chess. I hunted for three-letter French words. I spotted DRE (the end of many French words) in 53a. I searched for number-relevant entries like SSN (9 digits), DIME (10 cents), etc. I continued to flounder.

I inferred the contest answer was 8 letters long, and SALATEEELABS (1,5) probably contained the first and fifth letters, TEXGOTLEXGEL contained the 2nd and 7th, etc. I listed the unique letters of each theme entry in my notes:

  • ABELST (1,5)
  • EGLOXT (2,7)
  • DEKOSUY (3,4)
  • ABDEORX (6,8)

I wrote a Bash one-liner to brute-force potential answers and the 8-letter word BOOKABLE popped out. BOOK seemed thematic, so I guessed it was two four-letter words, so I searched for BOOK…., and SALE popped out. But.. EBOOK is in the grid, so that’s probably a dead end.

I tried to backsolve my brute-forced answer. Google Translate translates BOOK as LIVRE, and VENDRE as SALE. DRE was in the grid, but the signal died there. No amount of solving or backsolving got me anywhere. I don’t submit for the mug when I get help on the WSJ, but my brute force was a solo effort (and it’s probably wrong anyway), so I submitted BOOKSALE as my Hail Mary answer.

Matt’s MGWCC contest has a steady week 1 through 4/5 difficulty increase, but the WSJ is unpredictable. The Muggles have a great tradition of reserving the first page of comments for solvers announcing they are “on shore” (they solved the puzzle). If you’re wondering how difficult the WSJ is: see how long it takes for comments to reach page two. That may happen in 20 minutes on an easy week. Last week’s first page two comment was 15+ hours after the puzzle debuted, this week took over 17 hours. So I suspect I am in good company. Solvers: please let me know what I missed in the comments.

We’ll end with Joan Jett singing Bad Reputation with the Foo Fighters.

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27 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, November 5, 2021

  1. The three-letter words in each theme answer can be set up as the border answers in 3×3 grids, with a mystery letter in the middle:





    The letter that goes in the middle of each 3×3 is the letter that produces a phonetic sounding letter in the middle Across and Down entries:

    B?E/T?A –> BEE/TEA –> B/T
    O?E/E?E –> OWE/EWE –> O/U
    E?U/K?Y –> EAU/KAY –> O/K
    A?X/O?R –> AUX/OUR –> O/R (the R sound of OUR is a little iffy to my ear, but close enough that I saw what it was going for)

    Arrange the letters according to the parenthetical numbers, and you get BOOK TOUR.

    • The one thing I’m not sure about is if there’s a method for picking the right 3×3 grid for each theme answer, since each 3×3 grid can be set up two ways. For instance:


      … can also be …


      This gives you the same phonetic letters, but if you tried ordering them as the Across and then Down entries, you’d end up with the BOOK TOUR letters in the wrong order. Unless there’s a way of picking the correct 3×3 grid each time that I just missed, it looks like it’s a 50-50 shot for each 3×3 grid and then you’d just anagram or backsolve BOOK TOUR out of it if any of the 3×3 grids were wrong.

  2. hayburner says:

    Solvers were to construct 3×3 grids with each theme answer, and each grid has a hidden letter in the middle that allows both of the crosses to phonetically spell another letter.

    In this example, BeE and TeA correspond to the letters B and T.

    A B S
    T e A
    E E L

    B,T (1,5)

    G O T
    E w E
    L E X

    O, U (2, 7)

    O K S
    E a U
    D Y E

    K, O (3, 4)

    B A D
    O u R
    A X E

    O, R (6, 8)

    You’ll notice that this is where 1A comes into play, “AuX” and “EaU” are both French words that correspond to the letter O. Then from here, we use the dreaded numbers in parentheses to form a sort of constrained anagram of the answer (since you can construct the 3×3 squares two equivalent ways):

    1. *B*,T
    2. *O*,U
    3. *O*,K
    4. O,*K*
    5. B,*T*
    6. *O*,R
    7. O,*U*
    8. O,*R*

    This points to the answer, BOOK TOUR.

  3. Barry says:

    Best for me that I spent only a few minutes on this one because I would have needed the rest of my life and then some. Loved the puzzle. Congratulations to both the constructor and those who solved this.

    • MichelleQ says:


    • Bob says:

      I’m with you Barry. This discourages me from trying very hard in the future.

      • Richard says:

        Yup. I’m at the point with these that if I see an avenue for solving I’ll spend some time but if I draw a blank I put the thing down and go on with my day. I’m hitting about 60-70% lately. Certainly congratulations to all those who could see their way through to the solve on this one (and last week’s).

  4. confusedbish says:

    wow this was hard

  5. sharkicicles says:

    ok, but there were 4 3-letter words in each themer. how do you get 3×3 out of 4×3?

    • Bill Katz says:

      The 4 3 letter parts of the theme answers all overlap like aXb aXc bXd cXd so that 4 of the twelve letters are used twice, so the 12 letter answer becomes the outside 8 letters of the 3×3 box.

  6. JohnH says:

    With due respect to Conrad and his post about word searches and Bash, I can’t make head or tail of it. Is the idea that he never did get it? (Nor did I.) The explanation in the comments is helpful, though, although I had to reread them three or four times to follow, so congrats to those who got it.

    • Murcy says:

      There are several Unix text-handling utilities normally used in a command-line “shell” setting like “bash” and that are useful for crosswords. Conrad has a file listing acceptable words, and he had the hunch that this puzzle’s answer contained eight letters, two each chosen from the four crazy 12-letter entries: the first and fifth letter from the first, etc. So he asked himself, how many words are there that meet those constraints? Well the first and fifth letters have to be among a, e, l, s, b, and t, the second and seventh among e, g, t, l, x, and o, etc. The command called “grep” that he used (in a bash command-line instruction) searches through his word-list text file for lines (words) that have exactly that feature: starting at the beginning of the line (“^”) there is a character from among that first set (“[aelsbt]”), followed by one from [egtlxo], and so on until the eighth letter from [aebdorx] at the end of the line (“$”). The whole instruction is:

      grep “^[aelsbt][egtlxo][eodskuy][eodskuy][aelsbt][aebdorx][egtlxo][aebdorx]$” words.txt

      That yields a short list that includes BOOKSALE, which no doubt seemed promising as an event for folks of letters. BOOKTOUR would have been rejected by grep because of the U (which was spelled EWE in its mini-grid, and so no U had to appear in that themer).

      There are numerous ways you can get grep (and other text utilities like awk) on non-Linux systems. I installed Ubuntu, which implements a whole Linux system on top of Windows; it works great without any problems, but is certainly overkill to get grep!

      The real insight to this one was to focus on the question how those four three-letter words can give you something that’s “Three by Three,” and then notice that all those repeating letters in the long themers are at the starts and ends of the three-letter words.

      Super puzzle.

      • JohnH says:

        Ah, thanks. I see. It was basically just a hunch that proved wrong as to how the themers could contribute.

      • BarbaraK says:

        And for those who blank out when you start talking about shells and grep, there’s a website that will set it up for you:

        • JohnH says:

          Very nice. I didn’t know it, but no matter. I’ve a coding background, although I never thought of it as a way to look for crossword answers. (Must admit that on really bad days I’ve used a wild card in RHUD.) More that I had no idea what he thought he was doing. Seems to have pulled the thoughts of eight letters, of drawing them from the four words as 15 26 37 48, and of ignoring duplicates altogether out of thin air. But again no matter, as it was just a guess that didn’t pan out.

  7. Pete Muller says:

    super hard but a really cool idea

  8. Matt Gaffney says:

    Yikes, I didn’t expect this to play as tough as it did.

    I thought the “Three by Three” title, plus that each of the sets of three-letter words had two that began with the same letter (i.e., they go at 1-A/1-D in each 3×3), would get solvers off to the races. But it sounds that like that hint was less useful than I intended, and that the idea of creating the outer layers of the 3×3 and leaving the center square blank was trickier to see than I thought it’d be.

    • David Plass says:

      Exactly. Leaving the center blank was something I would have never thought of. I kept thinking the 4th 3-letter word was “extra” and that I was supposed to do something with it.

  9. Mary K. says:

    This is the first WSJ contest that I truly did not enjoy. When I am unable to solve, I always enjoy reading the solution. But this time, reading the solution was not enjoyable for me.
    Congratulations to those that solved the contest.

  10. David Roll says:

    The metas are not fun anymore.

  11. Mikie says:

    Shoulda just recycled the title from a couple weeks ago, “You’ll never solve this one!”…

  12. Robert Loy says:

    Never in a million years.

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