MGWCC #742

crossword 3:05
meta DNF 3 days 


hello and welcome to episode #742 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Chain Gang”. for this week 3 puzzle, matt challenges us to find an infamous American of the 20th and 21st centuries. all right, what are the theme answers? there are five long answers in the grid, each of which is a made-up two-word phrase:

  • {Nervousness about holding a baseball bat correctly?} STANCE ANGST. to me the STANCE is about how you stand, rather than how you hold the bat, so this clue feels a bit imprecise.
  • {Avoids capture in the “Lord of the Rings” universe?} FLEES SAURON.
  • {Like a big-box store with but a single senior staffer?} SPARSELY MANAGED.
  • {Delicious eel-based brunch?} MORAY OMELET.
  • {Juice company’s shame at releasing a lousy flavor?} MOTT’S INFAMY. i was not expecting to see INFAMY here in the grid with “infamous” in the instructions, but maybe it’s fine.

what do these answers have in common? i have no idea. maybe nothing. i looked at the initials (SA, FS, SM, MO, MI) and didn’t notice anything striking. i looked for hidden words, backwards and forwards. i think there’s nothing here, at least not yet.

so where to now? the title suggests a chain ordering mechanism, but we don’t yet know what to order. i think the answer has to be in the fill—there ought to be five or even ten more theme answers lurking in the fill, and we’re supposed to connect them to the long themers somehow.

so, how to find these other hidden theme answers? my eye was certainly drawn to some clues that look like they were written so as to provide intentional ambiguity:

  • {Athlete whose surname often appears in crossword puzzles} NADAL. this clue, for starters. i mean, it might as well just be {Athlete}. anyway, this clue suggests ORR or OTT or perhaps ELS.
  • {Card game cry} GIN, but it more commonly clues UNO.
  • {First name of a Spice Girl} GERI. there’s also MEL, and another MEL, and, uh… VICTORIA, i guess. i don’t know the fifth one of the top of my head. apparently it’s EMMA.
  • {Gambling game} KENO. lots of things this could be, although KENO is the one you see most often in crosswords.
  • {Event with steals} SALE. maybe this too. a baseball game has steals; so do basketball, hockey, curling, and probably some other sporting contests.
  • {Director with two Best Picture nominations (as producer) this century} NOLAN. this feels like a clue where there must be multiple possible correct answers.
  • {Permission-asking phrase} CAN WE. much less common than MAY I.
  • {So much} A TON. or LOTS.

can we figure out anything to do with any of these? okay, i see something. MEL is inside OMELET, and OTT is inside MOTT’S. that’s promising. LEE is inside FLEES, so perhaps ang LEE has two best picture nominations this century. looking it up… well, maybe. life of pi, definitely. his other best pict nom is crouching tiger, hidden dragon which was from 2000. that’s last century, but the oscar nominations for that year were announced in early 2001, so … maybe? i’ll pencil that in.

STANCE ANGST really only has TAN as a substring that looks like a valid crossword entry in its own right. i didn’t see any clues that could clue the color TAN, but {Noted San Francisco Bay-area novelist} EGGERS could definitely clue amy TAN, so i think that’s a match.

what about SPARSELY MANAGED? the hidden word would have to be PAR, PARS, PARSE, NAG, or AGE, i think. (ARS, SEL and ANA are possible, but less good. well, ANA itself is already in the grid, so definitely not that.) i guess AGED could match {Ancient} OLD, although in all of the other cases, the hidden word appears in the interior of the word rather than the beginning or end. it’s also the only four-letter hidden word. but i can’t find anything else.

all right, time to take stock. here’s what we’ve found so far:

  • STANCE ANGST contains TAN, like {Noted San Francisco Bay-area novelist} EGGERS
  • FLEES SAURON contains LEE, like {Director with two Best Picture nominations (as producer) this century} NOLAN
  • SPARSELY MANAGED contains AGED, like {Ancient} OLD
  • MORAY OMELET contains MEL, like {First name of a Spice Girl} GERI
  • MOTT’S INFAMY contains OTT, like {Athlete whose surname often appears in crossword puzzles} NADAL

so, what now? and in particular, what are we doing with the rest of the theme answer? there’s one word in each that’s so far entirely unused: ANGST, SAURON, SPARSELY, MORAY, and INFAMY. there’s also the extra letters in the container word; i suspect we won’t be using those, just due to their being so constrained, but maybe.

hmm, AGED is looking more and more like an outlier. it’s four letters instead of three; it’s not in the middle of the word; and it’s not a person’s name. those all make it different from the other hidden themers. i think we need to find another three-letter celebrity, probably one who matches {TV star who appeared in several “The Love Boat” episodes in the 1980s} RAE or {Artist who was the subject of one of Andy Warhol’s famous “Polaroid Portraits”} ONO. but those clues feel generic enough that they are hard to forward-solve for the missing celebrity.

oh, how about this: ANGST contains ANG, the first name of LEE. this has to be right—it’s a link in the chain suggested by the title. MEL and OTT are just there already. INFAMY contains AMY which links back to TAN. i guess SAURON contains RON, so… RON ELY? ELY is in SPARSELY, and i bet he was in the love boat, and/or photographed by andy warhol. it must be the love boat, because MAN / RAY is the artist (himself a photographer) who ties into the warhol clue.

okay, so this is a whole bunch of celebrities whose first and last names both have three letters (and as such, are frequent crossword fodder):

  • STANCE ANGST links amy TAN and ANG lee
  • FLEES SAURON links ang LEE and RON ely
  • SPARSELY MANAGED links ron ELY and MAN ray
  • MORAY OMELET links man RAY and MEL ott
  • MOTT‘S INFAMY links mel OTT and AMY tan

that’s the chain, all right. so what’s the answer? i … actually don’t know. i’d love to use the letters in the names:


i just don’t see how we’re supposed to spell something from those, though. it could just be “think of another (3, 3) person who’s an infamous 20th/21st-century american”, but nobody is coming to mind. (POL POT comes close, but he’s not american and he died before 2000.)

ok, perhaps we’re supposed to use the answers to the extra clues:

  • amy tan is a {Noted San Francisco Bay-area novelist}, like dave EGGERS.
  • ang lee is a {Director with two Best Picture nominations (as producer) this century}, like christopher NOLAN
  • ron ely is a {TV star who appeared in several “The Love Boat” episodes in the 1980s}, like charlotte RAE.
  • man ray is an {Artist who was the subject of one of Andy Warhol’s famous “Polaroid Portraits”}, like yoko ONO.
  • mel ott is an {Athlete whose surname often appears in crossword puzzles}, like rafael NADAL

the first letters of those other clues spell out ENRON. ohhhh, okay, it’s disgraced enron executive KEN LAY. i wouldn’t have thought of him because it’s often (usually?) kenneth, but he definitely fits the prompt, and he did live into the 21st century.

whew, that was a workout. but i feel i was slow to grasp the key features of the puzzle, and maybe it was more obvious to look for both halves of the relevant names. in particular, the fact that MEL and OTT were both staring me in the face should have had me thinking harder. although i think the MEL thing was coincidence, since GERI was not otherwise used in the theme—none of the other first names (AMY, ANG, RON, or MAN) were double-clued in the fill.

but hey, i got there, and it was ultimately very satisfying. how’d you fare on this one?

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28 Responses to MGWCC #742

  1. C. Y. Hollander says:

    Note that KEN and LAY appear in KENO and SLAY, as well.

    • This made me ALMOST guess very early on.

      • Matt Gaffney says:

        I wavered on whether to include this as a final click, the worry of course being the short-circuit. Looks like it was hidden enough (and KEN LAY’s name fading into history enough) that it didn’t happen more than a handful of times.

  2. Mikey G says:

    Cross-posted from the Muggles board:

    So, inside my mind, which is mostly just cats, crosswords, coffee, calculus, and Cubbies.

    I see the grid – love those silly themers. I would eat a MORAY OMELET! I’m not sure what went off first. I sort of saw RON ELY maybe? And I was like, “There’s a classic crossword name. I wonder if there are some others.” MEL OTT came next, and I believe I was off and running.

    And, of course, you try the typical, “Do these names spell out anything? Any clues?” It’d be pretty wild if Matt found these pairs of three-letter names and got them to spell something out! Nothing immediately.

    I remembered some rather longer clues; I think the one about the sports name in crosswords came up. “Goodness, I see MEL OTT all the time.” Oh, wait a minute. I saw the director, quickly researched ELY was on “Love Boat” (seemed about right!), and then we were off.

    And then ENRON, and I thought that was hilarious, and this was the switch in my mind. I was actually a bit curious as to how an infamous American was going to come up in the puzzle, especially if it was a name that maybe was polarizing or off-putting. So as soon as ENRON came up, I – maybe in my weird punny mindset – reinterpreted the prompt. Enron is an American company. So we’re using personification here: ENRON is an American. I could say the same about the Statue of Liberty (“the answer to the meta is a well-known American”).

    Perhaps it was a stretch, but I will be perfectly honest: Not for one millisecond did I think there was another step. It probably should’ve crossed my mind that ENRON was not a person in the literal sense, but I like some metas that make you reinterpret the prompt, though there aren’t too many.

    So when I saw that I didn’t make it, I was surprised, for sure. I’ve had students before – and this happens to me – that pick C with such sterling confidence to realize the answer is B. And you’re gobsmacked and you’re wondering.

    I did a bit of research after realizing I must have missed a step. People at ENRON? Maybe? Who are some names? Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow…hmmm. Okay but which one? There obviously was another step. I wonder what I missed.

    So, since puzzlers keep on puzzling, I was doing logic problems well into the evening after an awesome Cubbies victory, but of course, wondering what the meta answer was needling at me.

    “Hmmm. Was there a clue to Kenneth Lay? Maybe the mechanism had something to…ohhhhhh.”

    KEN LAY.

    And I think at that moment I was like, “AAARRRGGGHHH.” So close. Made perfect sense, of course, with all the other 3-3 names. (I didn’t even see that Easter egg in the grid!)

    I never for a split second thought to go there. I liked the research angle, but I never thought to make that leap, which is chiefly on me. I probably should have made the 3-3 connection, but I was so happy with ENRON (there’s a sentence you never thought you’d see) that I was like, “We’ve crossed the finish.”

    I realized seeing weekend stats (I still chronicle the stats!) that, lo and behold, I was resurrected from my own “infamous” missed guess.

    So, a little snapshot inside my corny cerebral cortex (more C’s). Not sure what that shows except I love puzzles and will keep on pursuing the meta hunt, now and always!

  3. J says:

    Perhaps it was necessary in this case, but I can’t help but wish the names leveraged were a bit more current – particularly when they have a pop culture bent. Mel Ott and Man Ray died 45+ years ago, right around the time of Ron Ely’s last major role.

    I realize this is probably more a commentary on crossword word lists, as these are entries that do still appear regularly in grids (and I bet I’d appreciate them more if I was a constructor), but 3/5 of the theme names being so outdated gives the puzzle a bit of a musty feeling which is not how I would normally describe a Gaffney meta.

    Appreciate the puzzle as always, just sharing what I hope is constructive feedback.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Yeah, very tight set though so couldn’t be too choosy. And the mustier among these five have had their shelf lives extended in the crossword realm at least.

  4. bananarchy says:

    Brings to mind this great Henry Hook puzzle

  5. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 238 right answers this week, of which 158 were solo solves. So within the bounds of Week 3 toughness, but on the difficult side for sure.

    I wound up accepting two alt-answers: ENRON, submitted by 24 solvers, since there was this weird thing during the trial where Lay or someone else was trying to claim that corporations were legally people. I vaguely remembered that being late-night comedian fodder back when Enron was collapsing, and a number of solvers mentioned that they thought that was the joke and looked no further. And then LOU PAI, submitted by two solvers. The name doesn’t register for me but he was a key Enron exec back during the scandal.

    The benchmark for these is not whether they’re as good as KEN LAY, but if an experienced solver could have gotten to ENRON or LOU PAI and said, “That’s it!” with a high degree of confidence.

    • Jonesy says:

      As someone who got to Enron and clicked onto Ken Lay immediately, I wholeheartedly support accepting those alt answers.

      Corporate personhood is totally a thing and there’s not much reallyyyy defending Ken Lay (KENO SLAY really being an Easter egg) rather than a different person related to the Company.

      I really liked this one but the only ding I have is that I was only 95% sure on Ken Lay (didn’t have the absolutely final click that we usually do – ie if the prompt was for a company, it would be 100% Enron).

      • Matt Gaffney says:

        KENO/SLAY was supposed to be the 100% click, (3,3) hidden in grid entries like the main 5

      • C. Y. Hollander says:

        It seems unfair to both dismiss KENO SLAY as an “Easter egg” and ding the puzzle for not providing the final click that KENO SLAY should have provided!

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      The benchmark for these is not whether they’re as good as KEN LAY, but if an experienced solver could have gotten to ENRON or LOU PAI and said, “That’s it!” with a high degree of confidence.

      For the record, I got to ENRON (naturally, since it was a step on the way to the actual solution) and didn’t think for a moment that it satisfied the prompt. I thought of KEN LAY next and did some research to confirm that he was indeed known as Ken, in the course of which I encountered LOU PAI and considered him as well. I didn’t feel that the click at this point was strong enough to warrant immediate submission, so I kept looking for something to confirm and found KENO SLAY, which was conclusive.

      In my own judgment, therefore, given the relatively tenuous nature of the alternative candidates (ENRON relying on a non-standard-English interpretation of the prompt and LOU PAI being the far less infamous of two Enron executives that otherwise fit about equally well), neither warranted such high confidence as to submit without first looking for something more to confirm [or deny] them.

  6. Thomas says:

    I guess the weird “as producer” parenthetical is because Ang Lee had three nominated films, but didn’t produce Brokeback Mountain. Technically all Best Picture nominations go to the producers.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Yeah, it was tougher that I’d expected to connect Lee and Nolan in a clue. Now that I’ve said this they’ll co-direct a movie next year just to aggravate me…

  7. pgw says:

    What a great puzzle. I got nowhere close. I was stuck on having noticed that each theme entry had an enumeration of the form [X, X +/- 1], as did the puzzle title, as does the pair [20, 21] as in the 20th and 21st centuries. This didn’t lead me anywhere, but I couldn’t get my brain to ignore it.

  8. Margaret says:

    When I didn’t see anything in the theme answers and the weird clues weren’t helping, I decided to try to backsolve. I was sure Matt wouldn’t have built a whole puzzle around someone horrible (so no serial killers or abusers) and probably not a political figure, which left me with sports and business. I was pretty sure it was going to be Bernie Madoff! I also wrote down Enron just in case even though it wasn’t a person.

    When I went back to the clues I decided Nadal was a bad answer to that clue (it’s usually RAFA, right? not a last name.) Then I looked for another San Francisco author, too bad Amy Tan wasn’t in the puzzle. Or… wait a minute… There’s Amy Tan! And there’s Ang Lee and Mel Ott OK OK OK this is definitely it! I’m on track! Huh, those don’t spell anything… Holy moly it IS Enron! What’s that guy’s name, KEN LAY? Oh geez I could have just seen Ken Lay sitting there in plain sight? That’s gotta be it. Super strong click for me.

  9. Jon+Forsythe says:

    A very difficult meta and one where, for me, Googling and Wikipedia were needed to solve. And needing Googling and/or Wikipedia to solve a meta feels like a ding. The name Ken Lay was new to me as well, as I purposely tuned out any Enron news when it was happening at the time. Since I missed the KENO SLAY “click,” I had no click in the solve of this meta. But that’s on me, I guess.

  10. Tom Bassett/ MajordomoTom says:

    Once I found “STAN LEE” in the first two theme answers, I was hopelessly lost.


    • Dave says:

      I got stuck on Stan Lee for a while also. But I actually think it helped me get there faster overall because it stood out more than the other names. It’s almost never worth it to go chasing after every random three-letter word you see hidden in a grid, but four letter words/names are more likely to be salient. Seeing that name in the first two entries prompted me to look for other names and eventually figure out that Stan was irrelevant.

  11. Richard K says:

    I found ENRON and KEN(O)/(S)LAY before tumbling to any of the other three-letter names, mostly because the five clues stood out for being unusually phrased in precisely the same way. (The clue for RAE really rang the alarm bells for me.) Was pretty sure Ken Lay was right, but I had to believe the wacky theme entries contained some crucial information. I think noticing OTT might have steered me onto the right path. Once I reached the end of the chain, I was able to appreciate the elegance of the construction. Seemed like a perfect Week-3 level challenge. Bravo, Matt!

  12. merlinnimue says:

    way beyond my ken (pun always intended)

    gg to all you geniuses who solved it. maybe if I had a few more months/years to think i might’ve had a chance.

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