2022 Orca Awards

The Orca Awards are back! The annual celebration of creativity in crosswords returns to the pages of Diary of a Crossword Fiend to throw a spotlight on interesting puzzles from a broad variety of venues. The Orca Awards were created by prolific solver Sam Donaldson to honor outstanding achievements in crossword construction and editing. For ten years, he determined the winners and honorable mentions in ten different categories.

Today, we continue the tradition.

In this post, we mention every great puzzle printed in any publication or indie blog in the Crossworld in 2022.

No, not really.

In reviving the Orca Awards, we likely missed out on many excellent puzzles in each category. Please call out your snubbed favorites in the Comments section—letting people know that you appreciate their work is the raison d’être of the Orca Awards.

Tradition dictates the Orca Awards are announced today. It’s no coincidence that ORCAS anagrams to ___. (In a parallel universe, less under the sway of the Everything Bagel, we filled in that blank for you.)

To the awards!

BEST EASY CROSSWORD OF 2022: “Sees Through The Lies,” by Hanh Huynh (Universal, September 22)

Hanh Huynh has offered up an impressive Sunday-style theme squeezed into an accessible early-week puzzle. The letters in the word SEES split up four synonyms of “lie,” each contained in a legitimate base phrase: HAL(F [S]IB)LING, ICE HOCKE(Y AR[E]N)AS, (T[E]A LE)AVES, and WINDO(W [S]HOPPER).

All the theme entries shine. Mirror symmetry is used well – this must’ve been a bear to fill, but the grid is glue-free.

Major kudos. This is how you beckon beginners into the nerdy rabbit hole of crossword solving.

Other amazing easy crosswords of 2022 (in order of publication), earning an Honorable Mention:

  • “Race to the Top,” by Paul Coulter (Universal, March 24) (WALK, TROT, and GALLOP hidden backward in Down entries RIGHT TO WORK LAWS, LIE DETECTOR TEST, and POLL AGGREGATORS, with revealer PICKED UP THE PACE. Spatial consistency elevates this theme: WALK in the bottom-left corner, TROT a little higher, and GALLOP highest of all)
  • Untitled, by Li Ding (NYT, April 25) (GENERAL TSO, COLONEL SANDERS, and CAP’N CRUNCH duke it out in a FOOD FIGHT, with some big newb-friendly corners)
  • “Language Immersion,” by Sara Cantor (Inkubator, May 5) (Big gamer energy in a hidden programming language theme, with a ton of fresh entries like OCTODAD and fun clues like [Squircle, for one] for SHAPE)
  • “This Wasn’t My Order!” by Hoang-Kim Vu & Jessica Zetzman (WSJ, May 10) (Exceptional theme consistency and gridwork elevate this puzzle into something delicious: [Frozen food?] is COLD TURKEY, [Super food?] is BIG CHEESE, [Baby food?] is SMALL POTATOES, [Junk food?] is BAD APPLES, and [Spoiled food?] is SOUR GRAPES. Lots of medium/long downs without crosswordese)
  • “Gnarly!” by Zachary David Levy (Universal, September 18) (Three wave-riding phrases used as revealers: SURF’S UP causing the first four letters of SURFACE AREA to rise upward, HANG TEN causing the first three letters of TENNIS COURT to hang down, and WIPEOUT removing the last four letters of SIDESWIPE. Lots of grid constraints there, but Levy still squeezed in some bonuses like WHERE AM I and AIRLIFT)
  • Untitled, by Erica Hsiung Wojcik and Matthew Stock (NYT, November 23) (An innovative, well-executed, how’d-they-think-of-that theme: [🔴🟡] is MASTERCARD LOGO, [🔴🟡🟢] is TRAFFIC LIGHT, [🔴🟡🟢🔵] is TWISTER MAT, and [🔴🟡🟢🔵⚫] is OLYMPIC RINGS. How perfect! Bonuses like RAW TALENT and DEATH GRIP, along with clues like [Social service?] for TEA SET, make for a lively solve)

BEST FREESTYLE CROSSWORD OF 2022: “Championship”, by Kate Chin Park & Chandi Deitmer (Boswords Fall Themeless League, November 28)

Kate, Chandi, and Boswords have each steadily built their bona fides over the last few years and backed it up with the Fall Themeless League’s Championship puzzle. A brilliant grid capping off Boswords’ calendar year, this puzzle adeptly balances novel with accessible: in the fill, in the clues, and in the choice to use diagonal symmetry that leads solvers in unconventional directions through the grid.

There’s just plain good stuff everywhere. Conversational entries are in vogue in themelesses right now, and this doesn’t disappoint with EXSQUEEZE ME, WAIT A SECOND, DID I DO THAT, and OVER TO YOU. Tom BERENGER and MEL C are here with a RANDO and DANAE of Greek Myth. The cluing hits a sweet spot of personality, misdirection, and plain old difficulty across the Stormy, Choppy, and Smooth divisions. See the spot-on tone on the odd-looking BERGY BITS with “Cutesy,” “Miniaturizing,” and “(yes, we’re serious!)”, the lovely misdirections like [Wrestling with a lack of humanity] for ROBOT SUMO, and the fiendish [Actor with casting approval?] for VOTER in the Stormy clues.

Tournament themelesses are always must-solves, and Kate and Chandi’s this year met and exceeded this high bar.

Other outstanding freestyle crosswords from 2022 meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • themeless xix (“holes in the house”), by Brooke Husic (xwords by a ladee, February 27) (Brooke’s “experimental” puzzles push the boundary of cluing conventions and feature uber-creative cluing angles in pursuit of difficulty, and this is among her best in that regard. It’s also a plain lovely grid, with entries such as FLOW STATE and LEIA ORGANA. Highlights from the clues: [Third party, say] for BASE RUNNER and [Vaporware?] for E-CIGARETTE)
  • Themeless #30, by Ada Nicolle (The Inkubator, April 22) (Ada is one of the most prolific themeless constructors of the last few years, and this Inkubator grid is a great introduction to her style in both gridmaking and personality, from the *clean* middle stairstack to GLAAD AWARDS and OPENLY TRANS. While the star ratings on Crossword Fiend are hardly scientific, this was the highest-rated themeless puzzle of the year)
  • Chasm № 12, by Ryan McCarty (McGrids, June 17) (Ryan’s wide-open “Chasm” grids are things of beauty, and this may be the best of the bunch, with a seven-deep center stairstack of CHATBOTS, TINDER DATE, LOCAVORE, LAYS AN EGG, FANFESTS, ZAZIE BEETZ, and CARAMELS. And, you know, the downs and corners aren’t too shabby, either)
  • dunk on the wackula, by Ada Nicolle (luckystreak xwords, September 8) (Triple stacks in 2022? Believe it. Ada’s here again, this time from her Patreon, with a grid pattern that looks like 2007 but features fresh indie fill all while mitigating that logjam in the middle that triple stacks are so prone to. And we can’t NOT mention the oh-so-meta [there are six in this puzzle] for FIFTEENS)
  • Untitled, by Patrick Berry (The New Yorker, October 22) (Smooth, colorful, varied stacks in each corner and the middle. Smooth everywhere. About as good as it gets from one of the greats)
  • Untitled, by Robyn Weintraub (The New York Times, November 17) (A very different pattern from another of the greats, featuring Robyn’s classic conversational style (THANKS A LOT, HERE WE GO AGAIN) and lattice of long and colorful fill structuring the grid – TRASH PANDA, SHORE LEAVE, MONSTER MASH. Robyn almost never misses with her marquee entries, and certainly doesn’t here)

BEST SUNDAY-SIZED CROSSWORD OF 2022: “Change of Heart,” by David Steinberg  (NYT, Sunday, February 13)

This year was full of large puzzles with the impressive touches we’ve come to expect during the crossword renaissance: snappy vocabulary, cute titles, non-challenging cluing that will eventually be figured out by most solvers, and, of course, themes of all kinds from the somewhat cheesy to the majestically complicated.

This year’s winner has all of those elements, but it emerged as our favorite because its very reason for being is to send out an eternal message of hope and love. We need that now more than ever.

Picking two sets of words that cross in two different ways, one of which spells out a secret message at the crossing point, must have been a labor of love for the constructor. For that, kudos!! That these entries form the backbone of a puzzle that captures our love of language and our love of aha moments, while hinting at something higher, makes this puzzle sublime.

Other outstanding Sunday-sized crosswords from 2022 meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • “Touring Production,” by Ella Dershowitz (Universal, January 30) (Clever concept with partially stacked entries where above is a one-word Broadway show and below is a type of road, with a fun revealer in GET THE SHOW ON THE ROAD. Impressive gridding!)
  • “Parlor Trick,” by Matthew Stock and Will Nediger (NYT, March 6) (Beautiful visual element of a PACHINKO game, with a bouncing path of O’s falling from the top of the grid into the lowest slot near the bottom)
  • “Cinemagrams,” by Sheldon Polonsky (NYT, February 27) (Movie titles are cleverly anagrammed into their own descriptions, like [Sea captain: robber, thief] for PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and [R.E.M.: alarming to the teens] for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET)
  • “Way Out West,” by Daniel Mauer (NYT, May 15) (ROUTE SIXTY-SIX tribute puzzle, with each U.S. state abbreviation along the road hidden in the grid – in proper order! – and sights like the PAINTED DESERT and GATEWAY ARCH highlighted)
  • “Some Light Reading,” by Jeremy Newton (NYT, June 19) (Emitting a nice Sunday buzz from the bright colors, and the fun wordplay with one meaning for the stoplight color going across and another meaning going down. A witty and creative  Sunday puzzle to challenge even experienced solvers)
  • “Two-by-Two,” by Matthew Stock and Chandi Deitmer (NYT, May 8) (Tour de force construction for a very impressive and dense stacked theme set, as well as lots of cute clues like [Make it so there’s snow way out?] for ICE IN)
  • “Ancient History” by Rebecca Goldstein (Universal, June 26) (Impressive and visually appealing theme of famous bridges atop bodies of water, super clean fill, and lots of fun clues like [Porky pic] for CEL)
  • “Come Together,” by Emet Ozar (The Crosswords Club, August) (Lovely diagonal symmetry to support four pairs of themers that come together on the word END, excellent theme base phrases, and also fun long fill like SWEAT THERAPY and CREME CARAMEL)
  • “Ups and Downs,” by Tracy Gray (NYT, September 4) (Beautiful rendition of Chutes and Ladders where “up” and “down” words hidden in the long themers guide them either up or down to a new level in the grid, and expert fill with fun bonuses like PUNK BANDS)
  • “Questionable Leaps,” by Taylor Johnson and Christina Iverson (The Crosswords Club, November) (Super fun thematic set of shows that jumped the shark, with THE SHARK appropriately being skipped over for those entries—also some great fill like KITTY TREAT and SMOKEY BEAR)
  • “Card Collection,” by Evan Birnholz (Washington Post, November 13) (Amazing visual feat with a stacked deck of cards that goes from the left to the right edges of the grid, like a magician spreading them out in a flourish, plus excellent bonus fill in YOU JEST, SOY LATTE, and TEA BLEND)

BEST GIMMICK CROSSWORD OF 2022: “Times Square” by Francis Heaney (Lollapuzzoola, August 27)

Imagine, if you will, the baseline difficulty of writing a crossword packed with six fun theme entries, sparkling fill, and good flow—all of which this puzzle has. Now amp up the difficulty to a whole other level, with the additional constraint that the clue numbers for all six theme answers need to land in just the right spots. That’s the plane of existence that contestants were transported to in Lollapuzzoola’s Puzzle #4 last year!

In this 17×17 puzzle, each theme answer begins with the letter X followed by a spelled-out number. To work out the trick, you need to multiply the answer’s clue number by the spelled-out number to come up with the original theme phrase. Below are the multiplication steps needed to unravel the six themers:

  • 3-Down [NBC’s headquarters, familiarly] = XTENROCK = (3 X TEN) ROCK = 30 ROCK
  • 6-Down [“Enter the Wu-Tang” subtitle] = XSIXCHAMBERS = (6 X SIX) CHAMBERS = 36 CHAMBERS
  • 24-Across [Pure, in a sense] = XONEKARAT = (24 X ONE) KARAT = 24 KARAT
  • 35-Down [Reduplicatively titled musical about larcenous septuagenarian ladies] = XTWOGIRLSTWO = (35 X TWO) GIRLS (35 X TWO) = 70, GIRLS, 70
  • 55-Down [Tuning pitch, for short] = XEIGHTHZ = (55 X EIGHT) HZ = 440 HZ
  • 73-Across [What a candle may represent] = XFIVEDAYS = (73 X FIVE) DAYS = 365 DAYS

Looking at the rest of the puzzle, there’s a lot to enjoy as well: the answers POOBAH, IN TOWN, TURNED ON, PIBB XTRA, MT SHASTA, and IT’S DONE; great question mark clues like [One who’s stepped out of the spotlight?] for EX STAR and [Word for bidders?] for ADIEU; and vibey clues like [Sing like Howard on “Only Murders in the Building”] for YODEL and [Adjective that applies to any given avocado for approximately five seconds] for RIPE.

We can’t emphasize enough the sheer difficulty of getting clue numbers to align in particular ways. As a point of comparison, there have been one or two impressive puzzles in the last few years that make use of clue numbers, one of which required the efforts of three M.I.T. students employing optimization algorithms to arrive at a grid that satisfied their complex constraints. That Francis was able to include six long theme entries, all tied to specific numbers ranging from 3 all the way up to 73, and placed symmetrically throughout the grid, is a phenomenal achievement.

Other outstanding gimmick crosswords from 2022 meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • “Open Letters,” by Brendan Emmett Quigley (AVCX Classic, January 26) (Timely and appropriately gimmicky concept with a mini Wordle stack in the center that includes yellow and green squares indicating hints, and impressive grid construction to tie it all together)
  • Untitled, by Adam Wagner (NYT, February 3) (Expertly crafted clue-based theme where the letter “l” needs to be interpreted as a “t” with a CROSS YOUR TS revealer and very well-hidden and devious clues like [Shakespearean fool] for IAMB)
  • “Opposite Day,” by Kate Chin Park (AVCX Classic, February 23) (Elegant multi-layered theme with days of the week appearing reversed inside seven theme answers as well as each theme answer being clued in an opposite way, combined with delightful fill like YOU BETCHA and MR MOON)
  • Untitled, Emma Oxford (Los Angeles Times, June 23) (Wacky and delightful theme, with an R-OUT revealer and perfectly calibrated zingers like [*Frying pans anyone can use?] for PUBLIC WOKS and [*Fitting motto for Pisa’s tower keeper?] for LIVE AND LEAN)
  • “Carry a Tune,” by Erik Agard (USA Today, June 30) (Brilliant doubled theme where three across answers are words for bags and three intersecting vertical answers have the letters TUNE resting atop each bag, as well as some lively fill in an eye-catching asymmetrical grid)
  • Untitled, by Pao Roy (NYT, November 24) (Delightful theme in its own right with a DOT rebus appearing above the letter I in the long themers to represent DOT THE IS, but most memorable is the devilish visual stunt of placing a bonus themer of DOT DOT DOT above III in the upper-right corner)
  • *thud from another room*, by Zaineb Akbar and Barbara Lin (Inkubator, December 8) (Adorable meta where a cat has messed with four theme answers such that each has a single letter “sticking out” and they ultimately spell out PAWS, along with a distinctive cluing voice throughout)

BEST CLUE OF 2022: [Show that you’re up to date?] for ASK OUT, in “Taking Shape,” by Bryant White (Spyscape, June 25)

This puzzle has plenty of clever wordplay to go around: [Capital of Karpathos?] for KAPPA, [Act like an ass] for BRAY, and [Problem resolved by inflation] for FLAT TIRE. But this clue stood out. It seems inscrutable… until the alternate meaning clicks perfectly into place, and it becomes impossible to see the clue the way you did before. It’s neatly defined. It’s classic, but fresh. In short, it’s a worthy winner for the Best Clue of 2022.

Other outstanding clues from 2022 crosswords meriting an Honorable Mention, in order of publication:

  • [Heart-to-heart meeting?] for CHEST BUMP, in “The Crossword: Monday, January 3,” by Patrick Berry (The New Yorker, January 3)
  • [This isn’t what it looks like!] for OPTICAL ILLUSION, in Untitled, by Caitlin Reid (NYT, April 8)
  • [Love thy neighbour, say?] for SNOG, in Untitled, by Christina Iverson (LA Times, May 6)
  • [Four of diamonds, for short?] for UMPS, in “Two For The Books,” by Susan Gelfand (Universal, June 2)
  • [Name on many a foundation] for ESTEE, in Untitled, by Brooke Husic and Michael Lieberman (LA Times, September 3)
  • [Person with a spiritual calling?] for MIXOLOGIST, in Untitled, by Brooke Husic (LA Times, September 9)
  • [Event for a biker gang?] for SPIN CLASS, in “The Crossword: Thursday, November 10,” by Robyn Weintraub (The New Yorker, November 10)
  • [One skilled at managing one’s pride?] for LION TAMER, in “The Crossword: Tuesday, November 22,” by Natan Last (The New Yorker, November 22)
  • [Object in a 1929 Magritte painting (or not)] for PIPE, in “Final Form,” by May Huang and Rafael Musa (USA Today, December 5)


Brooke entered the Crossworld only a few years ago, and it hasn’t been the same since. In 2022, she had eight NYT themeless puzzles, was one of the most prolific USA Today constructors, and served as part of the elite roster of New Yorker themeless constructors. She is a model for cooperation, having perhaps the most published collaborations of any constructor in 2022.

She actively developed new editing and constructing talent. She co-leads a crossword writing class with Natan Last for Atlas Obscura. She was a driving force in the AVCX expansion and creation of Lil AVCX. For the latter, in an effort to give a broader range of people editing experience, she recruited (and is now mentoring) a new class of eight editors.

Brooke has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to expand the canon of acceptable and desirable entries in a crossword. She co-founded and co-runs the Spread the Word(list) with Enrique Henestroza Anguiano, which lowered the bar to entry for newer constructors while expanding inclusivity in potential crossword answers.

She co-hosted and co-edited the 2022 Lollapuzzoola tournament. She’s the managing editor for Inkubator and part of the Autostraddle crossword team. Yet, she still manages to publish a monthly themeless crossword on her xwords by a ladee blog that is consistently excellent and has an “experimental clues” mode that’s boundary-pushing.

We’re not sure if Brooke sleeps, but we’re sure that she deserves this Orca Award for Constructor of the Year.

And with that, the curtain closes on the 2022 Orca Awards. Thanks to Amy for hosting and encouraging the Orca Awards and to Dave Sullivan for providing technical support. A huge thanks to Toni Tileva, Sam Frisco, Glen Ryan, and Enrique Henestroza Anguiano for being part of the nominating team.

Those of you who delighted in Sam’s epic annual treatises may notice that this year’s edition is more baby beluga than Antarctic blue. Sam retired from his position as “Sole Arbiter of the Orca Awards” because he believed these decisions shouldn’t just be made by one old white guy. His hope was that “others with lots of different perspectives will continue the tradition.”

To make that happen, we need you! We want deciders and nominators from a broad swath of solvers. This year’s Orca Awards were cobbled together by a ragtag coalition. If a few people like you were willing to jump into the fray—even if only to submit a few one-sentence nominations a year—we could broaden our nominations and bring back other categories like Best Crossword, Best Meta Crossword, and Best Variety Crossword. Join us so we can build the Academy of Cruciverbal Arts and Sciences!*

– Jared Goudsmit, Matthew Gritzmacher, Erik Price, Rich Proulx, et al.

*Because if all we can manage is the Hollywood Foreign Cruciverbal Association, we’re going to do the honorable thing and join Sam by the pool.


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3 Responses to 2022 Orca Awards

  1. placematfan says:

    No comments? It kind of seems like people missed this post for some reason. Anyways, big thanks to Team Fiend for the work.

  2. EC says:

    Suggestion: Maybe next year consider an award for crossword blog of the year? Mainstream outlets are heavily represented, which is great, but there’s a lot of good indie stuff out there too :)

  3. milobela says:

    Thanks for the writeup, team! I love the Orcas.

    Is there a public nomination process/announcement that I missed? I never know when it’s coming and who’s up for awards!

Comments are closed.