WSJ Contest — Friday, October 7, 2022

Grid: 10 minutes; meta: 2 days + teamwork 


Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Consider the Alternative” — Conrad’s writeup.

This week we’re looking for a six-letter word. There were six theme entries with clues beginning with “One of…”

  • [17a: One of the presidents of the U.S.]: WASHINGTON
  • [23d: One of the New England states]: CONNECTICUT
  • [25a: One of the sevenths of the week]: THURSDAY
  • [38a: One of the months of the year]: JANUARY
  • [40a: One of Shakespeare’s plays]: MACBETH
  • [44d: One of the Ivy League schools]: CORNELL

I spotted an obvious (and doomed) rabbit hole very quickly: MCFLY, clued as “Back to the Future” surname. (Doc) BROWN is another “Back to the Future” surname, and BROWN is an Ivy League school. I was pretty sure I had the theme… and then spun  my wheels for a long time. LIMP (clued as “Walk with a hitch”) sort of matched (the month of) MARCH, but that was a pretty weak link. And nothing else worked.

I tried other ideas, got nowhere, and selected OPTION as my Hail Mary guess (six letter synonym matching “alternative”). Then I collaborated with a solving friend who was also stuck. We kicked ideas around, and he found the rabbit: each theme entry had an alternate answer that was the same length: WASHINGTON/EISENHOWER, THURSDAY/SATURDAY, etc. We triple-checked for ambiguity (studying lists of Shakespeare plays, U.S. presidents, etc.), and there was none. Each theme entry had exactly one match of the same length. The first letters of the matches formed the nonsense string ERSOOH. We tried anagramming that and got nowhere.

WSJ Contest – 10.07.22 - solution

WSJ Contest – 10.07.22 – solution

So we needed to find step three, and we did. There were six 3-letter grid entries that contained the first letter of a themer and its match (in order), leaving the third letter:


The final letter of each three-letter entry spell OPTION, our contest solution (and my Hail Mary guess). Tough meta, but fair. Readers: let me know how you did, and describe the rabbits you chased. And raise a glass if you chased Doc BROWN back in time.



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38 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, October 7, 2022

  1. Tim Mitchell says:

    The fact that Matt was able to find six groups that had only two members with the same number of letters is pretty amazing. I wonder if it was intentional that the first letters of the alternative answers (E S O O R H) could be anagrammed to two possible apt answers if one letter was different: if the R was a C, they anagram to CHOOSE; if one of the Os was a T, they anagram to OTHERS. Seems like a coincidence, but it had me wondering if my methodology was correct in the early stages. Overall, this one was stunning.

  2. Paul Manaster says:

    While the intended solution is better in every way, there’s a case to be made for CHOOSE (which is what I submitted.) My thinking was that since this puzzle was about alternatives and choice, you could choose the first letter of five of the alternatives, plus one of the originals (Connecticut), and you’d get the letters for CHOOSE. My route was circuitous–I realized the answer length was key when I was away from the puzzle, and I thought California must be the replacement for Connecticut, which would have created CHOOSE perfectly; on later inspection, I realized California is neither a New England state nor eleven letters long. But I couldn’t unsee CHOOSE after that, and found the above justification for it. Great puzzle, wish I’d solved it.

  3. Paul says:

    I, unfortunately, found a list of plays with Tempest (not The Tempest). I submitted OTHERS.

  4. Amanda says:

    Haha, I anagrammed it, got POTION, and thought, that doesn’t go with the theme at all! Whoops.

  5. Robin says:

    Huh? This puzzle is out of my league lately.

  6. Sheik Yerbouti says:

    Team OTHERS here. Seemed to fit just right.

  7. Simon says:

    Count me in the Others camp. I knew Tempest was a stretch but the only play other than Othello which almost fit was Pericles. I would never in a million years have looked for that third step. How on earth did you do that?

    “I saw’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me.” — from Othello

    • Louis D says:

      For me, it was looking at ERSOOH for a while and then realizing I needed something else. So I looked at WE, CR, TS, JO, MO, CH. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this either, but since J is an uncommon letter, I looked for other J’s in the grid and when I saw JON, I had my aha moment.

      I thought this was a great puzzle.

  8. David Benbow says:

    My rabbit hole was that 46A (MAC) was clued as Cheese go-with. I was positive that HAM pointed to HAMlet. I spent a long time looking for other clues that could fit parts of the other themers. Also tried to make THUD work with THURSDAY.

    Thud, indeed.

  9. Tom says:

    I tried AFFORD.

    My thought was that it would be a following item
    Washington to Adams
    Thursday to Friday
    January to February
    Macbeth to Othello (doesn’t really work either alphabetically or chronologically)
    Connecticut to Rhode Island
    Cornell to Dartmouth

    Obviously flawed logic but I couldn’t find anything in the grid so just hoped to reverse engineer it. Kudos to those that solved it! Fun to see the real mechanism of a clever and tricky puzzle

  10. pannonica says:

    You’ve got to be kidding me.

  11. AmyL says:

    I got the alternates right away (after re-checking the clue and realizing Mississippi wasn’t a New England state). Then I was totally stuck. I’ll have to remember that three-letter words are often used.

  12. David L says:

    Sometimes I think I should try again at learning how to solve metas. Then I see one like this, and I think, nah, life’s too short.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      They’re not for everyone

      • Jeff Nixon says:

        Really, Matt?! I can understand the urge to vigorously defend the solution, but sometimes a little grace is in order.

        I’ve reached the point where I’ll spend an hour on it and if I don’t solve it then so be it. As was said, life‘s too short. As a result, my solving rate is gone down to maybe 50% at best. I still enjoy the exercise, whether it’s successfully solved or not.

  13. carolynchey says:

    We’d found the alternative answers and were surprised and disappointed that they didn’t provide the solution. Like others who posted, we tried different approaches to the first letters but couldn’t find anything that worked. After struggling unsuccessfully to find step three I finally saw the light after writing out the answers in pairs, one on top of the other (previously I had them side by side). When they were “stacked”, I saw the letter pairs and it reminded me that three letter words in the grid were often employed in meta solutions. I immediately found WET and realized I might be on the right track. The others fell into place quickly. I was really amazed I’d found the solution. It just shows it’s important not to give up!

  14. Mikie says:

    Nice meta, though a bit esoteric, and too much Googling for my taste – much prefer knowing that what I need for the solve is on the page in front of me, whether it be grid or fill or clues.

  15. Bob J says:

    There was a great MGWCC from a few years ago where grid entries suggested cities having the same word length(s), including THE WEST SIDE for New York City and FAT TUESDAY for New Orleans. I still remember figuring that one out… on Tuesday morning after I’d already given up and submitted a wrong guess. Oops. Thanks for the puzzle.

  16. Garrett says:

    Well, that is not at all how things went for me. I didn’t spin on bad ideas for long, but got the alternative approach and had the same results Conrad described except one: In place of his Othello, I had Tempest. So my letters in across and then down order are (and followed by the anagram):


    That seemed an appropriate answer and so OTHERS is what I submitted.

    The comment that there is exactly one alternative for each is not true for Macbeth. HENRYIV and HENRYVI also fit, as does TEMPEST and OTHELLO.

    That there is all this looking things up and *maybe* one used OTHELLO and then sought another step on a first week puzzle seems overthinking to the max.

    • Conrad says:

      There’s no play called “Henry IV”:

      – Henry IV, Part 1
      – Henry IV, Part 2
      – Henry VI, Part 1
      – Henry VI, Part 2
      – Henry VI, Part 3

      I’ve never heard of The Tempest called “Tempest.” Macbeth and Othello, sure.

      In my experience: anagramming for an answer is a pretty sure indicator that you’re in the wrong rabbit hole, unless anagramming is implied by the title or notes. If an anagram does work: I go back to the grid to find the intended order. I’ve done that successfully on a few recent MMMMs. If I don’t find any logical grid order (across then down, left to right, etc): I know I don’t have the answer.

  17. Bonnie Adamick says:

    Team OTHERS here however I knew there had to be a step 3 I was missing. It felt forced to use TEMPEST without the article, but I was out of OPTIONS after 3 days of chasing rabbits. Great meta Matt!

  18. Derryl says:

    One alternate answer that fits? Eisenhower doesn’t really “fit”. I just missed this concept,

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