The eleventh edition of Lollapuzzoola arrived, as expected, on a Saturday in August, and it did not disappoint. The largest annual crossword tournament in New York (and the second largest in the world) has become not only one of the highlights of the puzzle calendar, but an institution at this point.
I was not in attendance, but I did sign up for the Solve At Home puzzles. Last weekend, I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hands at this year’s tournament puzzles, and I was not disappointed. Lollapuzzoola continues to push the envelope with inventive themes and unique spins on how to bring crosswords to life. (Although there was nothing as raucous as last year’s De-cat-hlon puzzle that had participants meowing aloud.)
This year’s theme was “Back to School,” so every puzzle had something academic or el-hi about it, and the constructors were clearly inspired in all sorts of ways. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.
Warm-Up: Twinlets by Brian Cimmet
This puzzle felt more like hitting the ground running than warming up, but it definitely got the creative juices flowing. The solver is presented with two identical grids and two sets of clues, and you have to figure out which grid each answer applies to.
This was complicated by the fact that several of the clues were the same for multiple entries. For example, the clue to 1 Across for both grids was “One party in an after-school one-on-one encounter.” The grids themselves also made for a tough solve, since there were several sections only connected by a single word, so you had fewer ins to tell you which answer applied.
Overall, this was a tough but fair way to open up the tournament.
Interesting grid entries included US OPEN, GLAIVE, STEVIA, and CAN IT BE, and my favorite clue was “Fit to finish?” for ATEE.
Puzzle 1: Back to School by Aimee Lucido
The competition puzzles kicked off with this gem — my first Aimee Lucido puzzle, if I recall correctly — a terrific variation on a 17×17 grid with a clever hook. The themed entries had 4-letter colleges hidden backwards inside them (inside shaded boxes), and those colleges reappeared elsewhere in the grid, this time reading the correct way.
With four themed entries and four repeated colleges in a tight space, you could’ve easily had some tough crossings and awkward fill, but instead, the solve was smooth and the grid construction tight. A really great starting puzzle overall.
Interesting grid entries included COSTCO, TAOIST, MALAWI, and AGITATOR, and my favorite clues were “Mac alternative?” for BUB, “Movies, and some comics, but *definitely* not video games, according to some” for CANON, and “Axle attachments that always make me think of the world record holder for the 100-meter dash” for U-BOLTS.
Puzzle 2: Going Off by Erik Agard and Yacob Yonas
The difficulty increased with Puzzle 2, as Yacob Yonas and ACPT champion and speed-demon Erik Agard tested solvers with this diabolical entry. This puzzle’s hook was a familiar phrase where the final letter was replaced by the word “ring” — for instance, LUNCH BUFFET became LUNCH BUFFERING — and this hook was revealed in the final themed entry, SAVED BY THE BELL.
You see, each of those missing letters was “saved,” spelling out the word TEST. Truly a time in school when you’d hope to be saved by the bell. It’s a clever hook, but one that wasn’t easily parsed, at first.
Interesting grid entries included SHINNYING, FEE WAIVER, LIE ABED, and YOU UP?, and my favorite clues were “Sewer’s terminus?” for HEM and “Wood-chopping site” for DOJO, which is on the shortlist for my favorite clue of the year.
Puzzle 3: Subject to Change by Patti Varol
A nice palate cleanser after Puzzle 2, Puzzle 3 featured three pairs of themed entries where common expressions and phrases that ended in school subjects had those subjects swapped. So, for instance, YOU DO THE MATH and MARTIAL ART became YOU DO THE ART and MARTIAL MATH.
This was a really fun solve, and the hook was both challenging but very intuitive. The themed entries were complemented by great fill and a lot of fun, accessible cluing. This easily could’ve slotted in as the first puzzle, but served as an excellent midpoint for the regular tournament puzzles.
Interesting grid entries included TERMINATOR, I DON’T GET IT, GIANNI, and ALL IN ALL, and my favorite clues were “Two out of nine, literally” for ENS and “Result of hitting a certain bar” for SPACE. (Also, points for a quality Simpsons reference with “KWYJIBO” in one of the themed entry clues.)
Puzzle 4: Roll Call by Jeff Chen
This hook took me longer to get than it should’ve — which was the story of my Lollapuzzoola solving experience this year — as parts of an actor’s name were literally inserted into other entries. But the clues only reflected the word without the insert, which added to the challenge. For instance, CONSUMES became CONSUMMATES with MAT inside, but it was clued “Depletes,” so it was up to you to figure out the longer entry.
And which actor was hiding within the themed entries? Well, quite appropriately, it was MAT/THEW/BRO/DER/ICK, who famously played lovable truant Ferris Bueller. Well played, Mr. Chen.
Interesting grid entries included RYDELL (referencing another famous school from a film), SAMOSA, LIP RINGS, and BEER STEIN, and my favorite clues were “Caesarian section?” for VIDI and the pair of “Org. concerned with millions of screens” for TSA and “Organizations concerned with millions of screens?” for TV NETWORKS.
Puzzle 5: Watch Your Tone! by Paolo Pasco
The regular tournament puzzles wrapped up with this 21×21 puzzle, which expanded on the trading-words hook we saw in Puzzle 3. But instead of school subjects, we were treated to the entire musical scale, as seven themed entries shifted letters. For instance, instead of DOCK OF THE BAY (which started with DO, the first note), we had TICK OF THE BAY (featuring TI, the second note).
That DO was swapped down to the next entry, where REMAINS TO BE SEEN became DOMAINS TO BE SEEN, and RE was the note sent down to the next entry. This formed a complete chain by the seventh themed entry, with the eighth themed entry serving as the revealer explaining what was going on in this class: PASSING NOTES.
The trade-off for this fun and ambitious theme was some pretty tough fill entries to make the grid work, but those difficult entries were mitigated somewhat by very solid cluing, making for a challenging, but ultimately fair puzzle.
Interesting grid entries included CD CASES, A JIFF, ELASTICITY, and AERO MEXICO, and my favorite clues were “’Look at that puppy!’” for AWW, “Crossword making, for one” for ART, and “’____, ____, Nanette’ (possible Russian remake of the ‘Tea for Two’ musical” for NYET.
Puzzle 6: Finals by Mike Nothnagel and Doug Peterson
As always, there were two sets of clues for the Finals puzzle, the Local and the more difficult Express clues. No matter which clues you were working with, you were in for a terrific tournament finale.
With two 15-letter entries crossing in the middle to build around, Mike and Doug delivered a tight grid with some terrific filler entries. As for the cluing, it felt like a summation of high school classes, with references to math, foreign languages, Greek mythology, and American history.
(That clue in particular shined in both versions of the puzzle. In the Local Finals, it read “American ship sunk in Havana Harbor… don’t you remember?” and in the Express, it was “Ship in 1898 headlines.” The answer? USS MAINE.)
This was a final puzzle worthy of a tournament built around clever hooks, top-notch construction, and delightful cluing, and it delivered in spades.
Interesting grid entries included HAVE A SNACK, EPIC FAIL, RENAULTS, and MEDEA, and my favorite clues were “Event at which you might stand for a spell?” for BEE and “Ikea’s AROD and KLABB, e.g.” for LAMPS.
There was also a tiebreaker puzzle which kept me guessing for a long while, especially with clues like “Mother’s father’s daughter’s son’s daughter” for NIECE and “’I have to write ____ on my blog tonight, mostly to complain about this atrocious partial in the Lollapuzzoola tiebreaker'” for A POST.
The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was very little crosswordese, and the creative themes and puzzle mechanics — from swapping classes and passing notes to replacing missing letters with “rings” — ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the unique puzzles would linger in your memory.
Mission accomplished, and congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen. Lollapuzzoola is only getting more creative, more groundbreaking, and more clever with each passing year.
I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!
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