My Favorite Crosswords and Clues for 2016!

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the crossword — the one hundred and third, to be precise — and I thought I would celebrate the day by sharing some of my favorite crossword puzzles and clues from this year.

I solved more crosswords this year than any other year I can remember. From The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Washington Post to Peter Gordon‘s Fireball Newsflash Crosswords and our own Free Daily Puzzle on the Penny Dell Crosswords app, I tried to sample as many constructors and outlets as I could.

I want to start with Ben Tausig’s “Gender-Fluid” quantum puzzle from The New York Times in September. In a year that saw the Times called out several times for tone-deaf and insensitive cluing, to have a puzzle dedicated to the increasing awareness of other gender options was great.

And it certainly didn’t hurt that Ben’s grid was tightly constructed and each of the variable M or F entries worked well. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

“Eliminating the Competition” by Barany and Friends was another strong crossword with clever letterplay involved. The puzzle paid tribute to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament by dropping the letters A, C, P, and T, respectively from the four theme entries in the grid.

Not only that, but there were no As, Cs, Ps, or Ts to be found anywhere else in the puzzle grid, which I thought was not only clever, but impressively challenging as a constructing gimmick. It was one of the most ambitious grids I saw all year. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

On the flip side — a puzzle that was more about the clues than the grid — there was the cryptic crossword from Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography.

With clues like “Sounds like an assortment of taxis in which you were the MC (7)” (for CABARET) and “Costar a large, fake amount of money? (7)” (for FILLION), this puzzle not only rewarded attentive readers, but it severely taxed my (admittedly less-than-daunting) skills at unraveling cryptic clues. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

Oh, and on the topic of cryptic clues, I asked some constructors if there were any clues or puzzles that caught their eye this year, and David Kwong mentioned a doozy of a cryptic clue by master constructors Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon that he considered the most diabolical he’d ever seen.

The clue? “Emphatically, the key to making bozos boss? (9)”

The answer? SFORZANDO, which parses as “S for Z and O.”

That’s awesome. Doug Peterson did a variation on that in this year’s Lollapuzzoola tournament, “What Happened?”, which featured words or phrases where the letter H had been replaced with either a T or a Y. He revealed this with the entry “HISTORY” breaking down “H is T or Y.” I really dug this puzzle.

And speaking of Lollapuzzoola, I absolutely loved Francis Heaney‘s “Quote Boxes” puzzle from this year’s tournament. It was an 18×18 grid jam-packed with entries, and he used an interesting mechanic to fill the grid.

There were five 2×2 boxes shaded with different shapes, and each of the four cells in those 2×2 boxes contained a word from a famous four-word movie quote, allowing him to place longer entries in the grid. It was the highlight of Lollapuzzoola for me this year. Great stuff.

But before I get to the final crossword on my list, I’d like to run down some of my favorite crossword clues from this year.

  • “Island country that becomes a geometric solid if you change its last letter to an E” for CUBA (from Patrick Blindauer‘s Piece of Cake Crosswords. A super-long clue, but very fun.)
  • “Struggle with hopelessness?” for LISP (from Brendan Emmett Quigley)
  • “The Sky, Sun, and Stars play in it” for WNBA (from Peter Gordon)
  • “Answers, on ‘Jeopardy!'” for ASKS (I don’t recall where I saw this one. Let me know if you know, so I can correct this!)
  • “Some people do it for kicks” for KARATE (Again, no idea where I saw this one. Let me know if you know, so I can correct this!)
  • “Characters often found to be up in arms?” for YMCA (from Sam Trabucco’s Indie 500 puzzle)

And cluing tied into my final choice for favorite crossword of the year with Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan’s puzzle “Do I Hear a Waltz?” from the Indie 500 tournament.

In this puzzle, the words ONE, TWO, and THREE were missing from sequential clues, providing a hidden one-two-three count for the puzzle’s titular waltz. For instance, 36-Across clued TRUMP as “Up,” 37-Across clued BIKINI as “Piece, say,” and 38-Across clued TITLES as “Peat makeup.” As you’d expect, those clues make much more sense when you add the hidden one-two-three: One-up = TRUMP; Two-piece, say = BIKINI; Threepeat makeup = TITLES.

Hiding the beat within the cluing was absolutely brilliant, and one of the highlights in crosswords for me this year.

Now I’m sure there were great clues or puzzles that I missed, since I’m hardly a prolific solver. Let me know which puzzles and clues from 2016 were your favorites! I’d love to hear from you!


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Identity and Gender in The New York Times Crossword

[Image courtesy of the Odyssey Online.]

Only two months ago, I wrote a blog post about a Slate article discussing how The New York Times crossword can be socially tone-deaf at times. So it’s heartening today to write about a New York Times crossword puzzle that’s progressive, one that is bringing the conversation forward instead of feeling out-of-touch.

On Thursday, September 1, the paper published a crossword by constructor Ben Tausig. Even on the surface, this was a rare puzzle, because it allows for multiple entries that fit a given definition. These puzzles are known as Quantum puzzles or Schrödinger puzzles.

The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword pictured below, which “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

In Ben Tausig’s puzzle, there are four across entries and four down entries that each allow for two possible answers. For instance, 67 Across is clued “Tough stuff to walk through” and the answer can be FIRE or MIRE. That entry crosses 60 Down, which is clued “Word that can precede sex,” allowing for the answers SAME or SAFE.

What separates Tausig’s puzzle from this elite group of masterfully constructed Quantum crosswords is what it represents on a social inclusiveness level.

The letter variability — allowing for M or F to appear in the box and still fit the definition — is a wonderful metaphor for the fluidity of gender, especially in the limiting, but generally accepted, binary concept of male or female. Having GENDER FLUID as the revealer entry helps demystify both the theme and the topic at hand for solvers.

[Click here to see a larger version of the grid.]

As constructor Ben Tausig says in his XwordInfo write-up of the puzzle:

The theme letters don’t move from M to F or from F to M, in the manner of a binary, but float in an unresolved place in between. That’s a simple but reasonable way of representing queer sexuality — as a forever-exploration of identity and desire.

And although those two concepts only scratch the surface of the rich panoply of emerging terms and definitions with which people can express their gender or identity, this is an excellent step forward.

Kudos to Tausig and the crew at The New York Times crossword for a puzzle that’s elegant and inclusive in more ways than one.


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Puzzle Plagiarism?

[Image courtesy of PlagiarismToday.com.]

Today’s post isn’t the usual Follow-Up Friday fare. Instead of returning to a previous subject, I’d like to discuss a topic that I expect I’ll be returning to in Follow-Up Friday form in the near future.

There is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment you experience as a puzzler when you come up with an exciting, innovative, unexpected theme idea for a puzzle, or when you pen a terrific clue for a word. Whether the wordplay is spot on or you’ve simply found a way to reinvigorate a tired bit of crosswordese, you feel like you’re adding something to the ever-expanding crossword lexicon, leaving a mark on the world of puzzles.

Unfortunately, there’s also the flip side of that coin, and those who would pilfer the hard work of others for their own gain. And in a story broken by the team at FiveThirtyEight, there may be something equally unsavory going on behind the scenes of the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword.

You can check out the full story, but in short, an enterprising programmer named Saul Pwanson created a searchable database of crossword puzzles that identified similarities in published crosswords, and it uncovered an irregularly high number of repeated entries, grids, and clues in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

More than 60 puzzles feature suspicious instances of repetition — the word “plagiarism” comes to mind, certainly — and it has sparked an investigation. In fact, only a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that the subject of the investigation, Parker himself, “has agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

I’ve heard that oversight of the USA Today crossword has already passed to another editor of note in the crossword world, constructor Fred Piscop (author of last Wednesday’s New York Times crossword), but I wonder if more examples of crossword duplication are lurking out there.

With resources like XWord Info and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project out there, the history of crosswords is becoming more and more accessible and searchable. I can’t help but wonder if more scandals are lurking down the pike.


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Can you solve BuzzFeed’s 14 Trickiest Crossword Clues?

Last week, a fellow puzzler passed along this link, which had an intriguing premise. The folks at BuzzFeed asked prominent crossword constructors to contribute their favorite tricky or misleading crossword clues, challenging the audience to puzzle out as many of them as possible.

The constructors involved are a who’s who of top puzzlers, including Ben Tausig, Peter Gordon, Elizabeth C. Gorski, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Matt Gaffney, and several of the puzzlers involved in the Indie 500 tournament: Erik AgardNeville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, and Evan Birnholz.

There are 14 tricky clues, each with either some crafty wordplay or some delightfully wicked humor attached.

Now, fair warning, some of these are a bit risque (one drops the f-bomb), but they will all put your puzzly skills to the test.

[I wonder how Nancy Drew would do…]

My personal favorites were “Journey accompanier, often [9 letters]” and “Michigan county I promise never to use in a crossword again [6 letters],” both of which involve a level of honesty and pop culture awareness that transcends standard crossing cluing.

I managed to riddle out 10 of the 14 clues. Some of them were vague enough to allow for multiple answers — you don’t have a grid or crossing entries to help you limit options, after all — so I gave myself credit if the correct answer was one of several that came to mind.

How did you do on this crafty BuzzFeed challenge, PuzzleNationers? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

Start your engines! It’s the Indie 500 crossword tournament!

Having recently attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for the first time, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for other puzzle events and tournaments to check out.

And I stumbled across an upcoming tournament with a lot of positive buzz and interest: The Indie 500.

I decided to reach out to one of the participating constructors, Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross. Having met Evan at the ACPT this year, I knew he would be the perfect go-to guy to fill me in on everything Indie 500.

1.) What is The Indie 500?

The Indie 500 is a new crossword puzzle tournament started by five guys with their own free, independent crossword websites: Erik Agard, Peter Broda, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, and myself. We’re each writing and editing the puzzles and we’re excited to hold our first tournament on May 30 down in Washington, DC.

2.) How does it differ from other crossword tournaments/events?

I think our tournament is, first, an outgrowth of the work we do on our respective websites. On a larger scale, it’s essentially a celebration of indie puzzling. The five of us behind the Indie 500 had published only a few puzzles in mainstream outlets before launching our sites, and now most of our crosswords are things that we’ve created for self-publication.

Because we each drew inspiration from independent puzzle writers like Brendan Emmett Quigley and Matt Gaffney and Ben Tausig, we wanted to give others who didn’t have many published puzzles to their name a chance to have a spotlight of their own, so we held a blind, open submission contest to find a sixth tournament constructor with fewer than ten publications in mainstream venues like The New York Times, The LA Times, CrosSynergy, and so on.

If nothing else, we figured this would inspire new constructors to be creative and submit something that they wouldn’t normally send in to a newspaper. We got several amazing submissions, and ended up picking a winner in Finn Vigeland.

[The six contributors to The Indie 500, plus initials.]

I believe our unique voices as puzzle-makers will help set our tournament apart from others. The puzzles on our sites tend to skew younger in content compared with mainstream puzzles — no surprise considering we’re all 31 or younger (I’m the oldest) — and so we like to dabble in themes and clues that reference modern and sometimes edgy material.

Because we don’t have the same space or “breakfast test” constraints that a newspaper puzzle might have, that gives us a lot of liberty to work with fresh and creative clues and themes, and we’re hoping to bring a similar vibe to our event.

We’re also throwing in some fun features that you likely won’t see at other tourneys. First, we’ll be releasing a separate meta puzzle suite before the tournament featuring puzzles by all five of us co-founders; the suite isn’t required for solving the tournament puzzles, but we think it will be fun all the same.

Next, the solvers who make it to the finals will get to have their own individual entrance music while we announce their names in style. How cool is that?

But the biggest thing that sets our tourney apart? Pie. There will be Pie. No other crossword tournament can promise you that.

[Pie: an Indie 500 guarantee.]

3.) How did it start? How did you get involved in the tournament?

We each started talking about running our own collaborative gig shortly after the 2014 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. We just thought: events like this and Lollapuzzoola are such a blast, why not have our own tourney?

Of course we weren’t sure at first if it would be financially or logistically possible, but we got a great response from others in the puzzle world when we originally floated the idea. Over the last year, it’s just been a lot of planning, a lot of wrangling over the details, a lot of building and rebuilding grids… and now it’s almost here!

For myself, I just felt incredibly lucky to be included on the project with four other really talented puzzle constructors from the beginning. I had only published a small handful of puzzles on my website when we first discussed the idea of a new tournament, where the other four had been self-publishing for at least a year or two.

4.) As a constructor yourself, what’s your favorite part of an event like this? Do you have any favorite clues or puzzles you’ve crafted, either connected to the Indie 500 or on your own?

The best part about attending a crossword tournament is the camaraderie you get from hanging out with friends and meeting new people who enjoy the hobby of crosswords as much as you do. Solving the puzzles and creating them are fun to do, but that’s really secondary to the social aspect of a big event like this.

I’ve never had the chance to be on the other, more organizational side of things until now, but I will say that there’s a real rush I get from the thought of watching a whole room of people work on a puzzle of mine in real time.

[Solvers testing their skills at the Arlington Puzzle Festival.]

This won’t be the first time I’ve gotten that opportunity. Will Shortz once selected my first New York Times crossword as the final puzzle for the 2013 Westchester Crossword Tournament. That was a major thrill and I’m looking forward to that same adrenaline rush again.

As for favorite puzzles or clues of mine — I can’t really reveal much about what I’ve made for the tournament, but I’m a big fan of smooth grids with clues that really deliver a good a-ha moment, or at the very least make solvers laugh.

This early themeless puzzle is still one of my favorites because I was able to keep it relatively junk-free but still managed to fit in several longer, lively phrases.

This Halloween-themed puzzle was a nightmare to construct, but it had a fun gimmick and it gave me a chance to create some funny fake movie titles.

Often when I’m writing clues, I like to find quotations for famous people that may end up in my grids, especially comedians, since they’re usually a goldmine for funny sayings (like in 27-Down in this puzzle).

I’m also on the lookout for fresh angles on old crossword retreads — I once clued EDEN as [Apple site that was running perfectly until a couple of people violated its terms].

But for some reason, I still have a soft spot for a clue I wrote in the very first puzzle of mine that ever got published, in Ben Tausig’s Twenty Under Thirty compilation: [That’s what sheep said] (3 letters). The answer itself wasn’t exactly a great puzzle entry, but I figured, if the clue’s funny, people will still like it.


Thanks to Evan for taking the time out to answer my questions! You can check out the full details on The Indie 500 by clicking here!

I wish Evan and his fellow constructors the best of luck. Puzzle events and community-building efforts like this are always worthwhile endeavors.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

Girls Make Games (and Puzzles, too!)

[Alicia Crawford, winner of Sony Online Entertainment’s 2011 Gamers in Real Life (G.I.R.L.) Scholarship, aimed at bringing more women into the field of video game production and design. Photo courtesy of Sony Online Entertainment, by way of Wired.com.]

I am a huge proponent of seeing creative people succeed. From Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns to intrepid puzzlesmiths and game designers striking out on their own for the first time, I am always seeking out new stories about puzzlers enriching the world with their own creations.

So when Fred, Director of Digital Games here at PuzzleNation, passed along this link about Girls Make Games, it was right up my alley.

Girls Make Games organizes summer camp-style workshops to introduce girls to video gaming, both playing them and designing their own. It’s a very worthy cause that ties perfectly into ongoing efforts across the world to encourage more women to pursue STEM paths.

STEM education, for the uninitiated, is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, four key components to competing effectively in today’s global marketplace. Girls Make Games is a wonderful way to introduce girls to STEM courses and to add important, fresh voices to the world of video games.

[The “Nothing to Prove” video by the band The Doubleclicks.
A musical reminder that nonsense like the “fake geek girl” myth is
just one of the reasons why we need programs like Girls Make Games.]

And while it’s not reported as often as the gender gap in video-game design or considered as controversial a topic, there’s a similar disparity in the presence of female constructors and editors of crosswords among the major outlets. Ben Tausig published an article last year on the subject, and raised some intriguing points.

I admit, I was surprised by ratio of male-to-female constructors in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other big outlets, but that’s probably because I’m most familiar with the editors and puzzlers at Penny/Dell Puzzles, where the women easily outnumber the men.

Maybe this means the puzzle world could use a program along the same lines as Girls Make Games. With so many terrific puzzlers out there, from Kathy Matheson, Robin Stears, and Deb Amlen to Patti Varol, Leslie Billig, and Baffledazzle creator Rachel Happen, there are plenty of great role models out there for aspiring constructors.

I can’t wait to see what these new voices come up with.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!