Lollapuzzoola 11 This Weekend!

This Saturday, August 18, marks the eleventh edition of the Lollapuzzoola crossword puzzle tournament!

For the uninitiated, Lollapuzzoola is an independent crossword tournament run by Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer, featuring puzzles constructed with a more freewheeling style than the traditional American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. As they say, it’s “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.”

The format is similar to BosWords. Competitors are placed in one of four divisions: Express (solvers with tournament experience), Local (other solvers), Rookies, and Pairs.

With seven tournament puzzles — designed with inimitable style, both fun and befuddling in how often they innovate classic crossword tropes — you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth as you solve.

And for those who reach the top of mountain, “winners in each division are awarded prizes, which could range from a box of used pencils to a brand new car. So far, no one has ever won a car.

Registration is still open if you want to attend in person!

But if you can’t, the At-Home Division is open for any and all solvers to enjoy. For $15, you’ll receive the tournament puzzles the next day for your enjoyment (or frustration, depending on the difficulty).

It should be a great time, either in person or for solvers at home. Lollapuzzoola is one of the highlights of the puzzle calendar.

Are you planning on attending Lollapuzzoola or solving from home? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!


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Lollapuzzoola 11 is near!

Saturday, August 18, marks the eleventh annual Lollapuzzoola!

The marvelous indie offspring of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Lollapuzzoola is a favorite of both solvers and top constructors, all of whom descend upon New York City to enjoy what can only be described as “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.” (At least, that’s what they say on their website.)

The format is simple. Four divisions — Express (experienced solvers who have contended in or won tournaments before), Local (solvers with some experience), Rookies, and Pairs (allowing you to team up to solve) — pit their puzzly minds against clever clues and crafty constructors.

With seven tournament puzzles — designed with inimitable style, both fun and befuddling in how often they innovate classic crossword tropes — you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth as you solve!

And for those who reach the top of mountain, “winners in each division are awarded prizes, which could range from a box of used pencils to a brand new car. So far, no one has ever won a car.

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But if you can’t make it to NYC that weekend, worry not! There’s an At-Home Division that will allow you to participate as if you were there! You’ll get your puzzles by email the day after the actual tournament for a very reasonable $15 fee! Not only that, but you’ll be able to submit your times (and your number of blank/wrong squares) to be officially ranked in the At-Home Division lineup!

It’s one of the highlights of the puzzle world each year, and I’m definitely looking forward to tackling the puzzles! They’re a diabolical treat each and every year! (For a full rundown of the event, check out this interview with Local Division winner and friend of the blog Patti Varol!)

Are you attending Lollapuzzoola or solving from home? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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Women of Letters: Doing Good with Crosswords!

The puzzle community is awesome. I have chronicled numerous examples of this fact during my time writing this blog, and yet, I am endlessly stunned by the generosity and thoughtfulness embodied by so many puzzlers I know, as well as others I hope to meet in the future.

Today, I have the privilege of sharing another marvelous charitable puzzly project with my fellow PuzzleNationers.

Crossword constructor and friend of the blog Patti Varol, alongside constructors Angela Halsted and Amy Reynaldo, assembled a who’s who of top constructors for a project called Women of Letters.

The idea is as simple as it is marvelous.

If you donate to one of the worthy causes pictured below — including Girls Who Code, Sanctuary for Families, Girls Not Brides, Planned Parenthood, and others — you can send a copy of your charitable receipt to WomenofLettersCrosswords@gmail.com.

And in return, you’ll receive a PDF loaded with 18 pages of original puzzles by topnotch constructors like Robin Stears, Lynn Lempel, C.C. Burnikel, Laura Braunstein, Tracy Bennett, Andrea Carla Michaels, and more!

It’s a little extra incentive to do a bit of good in the world, plus it highlights the hard work and boundless creativity of women in the puzzle community. Kudos to everyone involved in this venture.

[You can click here for full details on Women of Letters.]


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ACPT 2018 Wrap-Up!

The 41st annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel once again to put their puzzly skills to the test in what is lovingly known as “the Nerd Olympics.”

The tournament takes place over two days, with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday. Then the top three finishers in the A, B, and C brackets solve the championship puzzle on whiteboards in front of the audience.

On Friday and Saturday night, there are often puzzle events, demonstrations, and panels by top puzzlers and figures in the puzzle world as well.

I made the journey down to Stamford myself Saturday morning, arriving with plenty of time to spare to prep our spot in the puzzle marketplace and say hello to friends and puzzly acquaintances. This year, I was joined at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth once again by my friend and partner-in-promotion Stacey Scarso.

The Penny Dell crew had a terrific setup as always, with a metric buttload of magazines to give away, including copies of The Crosswords Club and several flavors of Tournament Variety, Master’s Variety, and Dell Sunday Crosswords. They were also running a kickass promotion offering half-price on a year’s subscription to Crosswords Club, which is a great deal.

Plus we had a terrific sample puzzle for the Daily POP Crosswords app, constructed by the marvelous Angela Halsted! You can click this link for the answer grid AND a bonus offer for anyone who missed our ACPT tournament puzzle!

PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, an umbrella, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by the folks at Penny Dell. (Though I did have a hand in writing some of the clues.)

And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles.

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running. There were puzzle magazines galore from the Village Bookstore (as well as a table of Merl Reagle’s puzzle books), a booth loaded with Nathan Curtis’s various puzzly projects, and ACPT-themed jewelry, key chains, teddy bears, magnets, and other items from All of the Things.

As competitors readied themselves for the day’s solving, I had plenty of time to see friends of the blog like Crosswords Club editor Patti Varol, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, constructor Joanne Sullivan, and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough!

Perhaps the best part of attending the tournament is getting to chat with so many members of the puzzle community in one place. There were first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies; apparently, contestants ranged in age from 17 to 92(!), and there was a 90-year-old rookie competing this year!

There were long-time puzzle fans who have been competing at ACPT for years, if not decades, many of whom were decked out in puzzle shirts, puzzle scarves, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

One of the attendees even offered to buy the Crossword Puzzle Junkie shirt off my back! I assured him that that would work for him and literally no one else in attendance.

But I digress.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, Tyler Hinman, Howard Barkin, Ellen Ripstein, and Stella Zawistowski.

Getting to connect faces and personalities with names I know from tournaments like the Indie 500 is a real treat, and so many of the people in the puzzle world are genuinely nice, funny individuals. Not only that, but I also got to meet several fellow trivia fiends from the Learned League community!

The two hours before showtime passed quickly, and soon, the marketplace emptied and the ballroom filled as competitors took their seats for Puzzle 1.

Attendance jumped again this year, which meant not only was the main ballroom absolutely jam-packed with competitors, but an overflow room was needed to accommodate the nearly 700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Tracy Gray’s puzzle to be quick and fair. One solver in particular, constructor Erik Agard, delivered an absolutely blistering time, solving the puzzle in under 2 minutes! (A feat not seen since Dan Feyer did so in 2015.) It immediately rocketed Erik to the top of the leaderboard in impressive fashion.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Zhouqin Burnikel, surprised some solvers with its difficulty. Then again, Puzzle 2 has been on the tougher side for at least the last few years, but I think many solvers forget that, given how legendarily difficult Puzzle 5 is every year. It’s easy to forget other puzzles can offer quite a challenge along the way.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Mike Shenk, and served as a well-received palate-cleanser before the lunch break. Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4.

[Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]

And what a Puzzle 4 it was. Constructed by Damon Gulczynski, this puzzle had a visual element that tripped up several top competitors. (An unclear blurb “explanation” didn’t help matters, and several competitors told me they would’ve been better off with no blurb at all.)

The judges were forced to actually explain the puzzle before competitors began Puzzle 5. It was a disappointing way for the second half of the tournament day to kick off.

Not only that, but one solver was mistakenly given Puzzle 5 to solve INSTEAD of Puzzle 4. He managed to solve it in the shorter time allotted, but couldn’t fairly solve Puzzle 4 afterward because of the explanation. I haven’t been able to follow up and find out what exactly happened to his score.

Finally, after the unexpected drama of Puzzle 4, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Joel Fagliano did the honors, and according to competitors, it was as challenging as expected, really putting the craftiness and keen wits of the solvers to the test. (Apparently, computer solving program Dr. Fill failed to complete puzzle 5, one of its few slip-ups in an otherwise impressive year for the program.)

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel, and declared it both fun and fair. The competitors dispersed to rest their brains (or solve more puzzles). We packed up the Penny/Dell table and headed for home.

And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers.

Puzzle 7, constructed by Patrick Berry, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, very little crosswordese, and great fun.

Erik Agard remained at the top of the leaderboard, having kept a great solving pace after his outstanding performance on Puzzle 1 — a nice redemption for him after a heartbreaker last year, when an error dropped him out of finals contention after a strong performance overall.

So the final three would be Erik, Dan Feyer (7-time champ), and David Plotkin (a familiar name in the top ten).

Thankfully, this year, there was no repeat of last year’s flub where the B-level finalists got the A-level clues or anything like that. And there were no distinct time advantages among the top solvers.

It was simply a match-up of some of the fastest, sharpest puzzlers. (Including 2 rookies in the C-level final!)

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:

Erik Agard would complete the puzzle first, solving it in under 5 minutes. By comparison, huge swathes of Dan and David’s grids were still empty at this point. It was a stunning showing for a very well-liked member of the puzzle community!

Dan Feyer would wrap the puzzle up in 9 minutes, with David Plotkin following at around 13.

As he had done all tournament, Erik solved with incredible speed and precision, claiming his first tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 14th (up from 18th last year!), David Steinberg placed 23rd (up from 28th!), and Patti Varol placed 74th (up from 103 last year!) out of a field of almost 700 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

[I wonder how many competitors this tweet applies to…]

It’s always great fun to spend time with fellow puzzlers and wordplay enthusiasts, immersing myself in the puzzle community and enjoying all the charm and camaraderie that comes with it.

We’ll see you next year!


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My Favorite Crosswords from 2017!

One of my New Year’s Resolutions last year was to solve more crosswords.

I wanted to sample as many outlets as possible, really immersing myself in the tricks and techniques that constructors use to create really topnotch puzzles. And I definitely solved more crosswords from more publishers than ever before.

And any time a puzzle really impressed me, or made me laugh out loud, or presented an enjoyable challenge that lingered in my mind after the solve, I put it aside in a little folder.

So now, I’d like to give those puzzles and their constructors a little love as I share my favorite crossword puzzles from 2017.


My collection started early in the year when David Steinberg celebrated the 125th anniversary of Stanford with a crossword that not only wished the university “happy birthday” in circled letters in the grid, but spelled out the number “125” when you connected the circles!

Peter Gordon marked 7/7/17 on the calendar with Fireball Newsflash Crosswords #7, and went all in on the 7s, placing three entries in the puzzle that were clued as “capital of a seven-letter country/state.”

Patrick Blindauer’s “End of the Summer” puzzle from the first edition of Piece of Cake Crosswords celebrated Labor Day with shaded entries that clued multiple down entries, depending on whether you filled the shaded space with LAB or DAY. So, for instance, you could have LAMP and BEAR or DAMP and YEAR reading down for their particular clues.

[Image courtesy of TV Tropes.]

For brazen acts of punnery, it’s hard to top Patrick Blindauer’s “For Fudd’s Sake” Piece of Cake Crosswords puzzle. Theme entries like WOOKIE MISTAKE definitely had me laughing. Then throw in clues like “Instrument that becomes a dessert if you change its first letter to a J” for CELLO and “What my fiancee said to me on September 16, 2011” for I DO, and you’ve got a great solve.

Then again, there was COOLIO JETS in Brendan Emmett Quigley’s “No Big Pun Intended” crossword from March 30th, MOSTLY ARMLESS from Patrick Blindauer’s “True ‘Liza” Piece of Cake Crosswords puzzle, and entries like PIGNORAMUS, LAMBITION, and SQUIDDITCH from Patti Varol and Dave Cuzzolina’s June 30th LA Times puzzle.

And how could you resist the wordplay in Quigley’s “Next Level Shit” puzzle from November 2nd? Entries like LAKE TITICACA and SKYSCRAPER AD were purposely broken up onto ascending rows, so that CACA and CRAP(ERAD) read out on the “next level.” It was shameless and very inventive all at the same time.

[Image courtesy of Scientix Blog.]

Nobody keeps it current like Peter Gordon with his Fireball Newsflash Crosswords, and #20 from March 3rd had a lot of fun with the snafu at the Oscars, first giving us “Winner of the Oscar for Best Picture at the recent Academy Awards” as a clue for LALALAND and then correcting itself later with “There’s been a mistake! Actual winner of the Oscar for Best Picture at the recent Academy Awards” for MIDNIGHT. Beautiful trolling there.

He did something similar in the “Themeless 107” Fireball Crosswords puzzle that had HARRY ANGSTROM as an entry, and then referenced it in another clue — “Film character whose last name is roughly 95 septillion times longer than 23-Across’s?” — for BUZZ LIGHTYEAR. The science/math nerd in me popped for that one.

I’m a sucker for ladder puzzles, so when Mary Lou Guizzo and Jeff Chen snuck one into their May 5th puzzle in The Chronicle of Higher EducationAPE, APT, OPT, OAT, MAT, MAN — and an evolutionary one at that, I very much enjoyed it. The cluing only added to the fun, with clues like “Member of a Latin lover’s trio?” for AMAT and “Kiddie or chick follower” for LIT.

The Chronicle of Higher Education struck gold again on April 21st with Ed Sessa’s puzzle “That Boxed-In Feeling.” Not only did the puzzle feature several confined spaces like MRI MACHINE and PHONE BOOTH as theme entries, but CLAUSTROPHOBIA was jammed into the center of the puzzle — two letters per square — to really bring the theme home. Really nice, tight gridwork there.

(For the trifecta, I also enjoyed George Barany and Michael Hanko’s July 21st puzzle in The Chronicle, “Side Order,” which used BERMUDA TRIANGLE, TIMES SQUARE, and THE PENTAGON to complete a themed GEOMETRIC SERIES.)

Another puzzle with a lot of interplay between cluing and theme answers was Jacob Stulberg’s “Two Descents’ Worth” Fireball Crosswords puzzle. This one had entries like DRESSING, STRIPPED, and UPSIDE, which were referenced in clues for CENSURE, BASIC, and FLIPPED.

You see, the theme here was DOUBLE DOWN, so a double DRESSING down would be CENSURE, something doubly STRIPPED down would be BASIC, and being doubly UPSIDE down would be FLIPPED. I confess, it took me a while to parse out the relationships between these entries, but once I did, I was very impressed with the imagination and constructing skills necessary to make the puzzle.

[Um, no, not THAT Double Down. Image courtesy of YouTube.]

There were also some grids that really played with word placement and omission in super-clever ways.

Tracy Bennett’s “To Everything There is a Season” puzzle from the Indie 500 tournament offered a grid with four-way symmetry built around the four seasons, which all appeared within the grid. Having the clues set at 90-degree angles to coincide with word placement in the grid was a nice touch.

Timothy Polin’s “A Prynne String,” the January 13th puzzle for The Chronicle of Higher Education, had four As in the grid that “concealed” the letters RED both across and down, so LEERED AT and HUNDRED ACRE WOOD became LEEAT and HUNDACREWOOD. It took me a while to figure out the game here, and when I did, I was really impressed with the grid construction and creativity.

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Ed Sessa makes his second appearance on the list with a March 24th Los Angeles Times puzzle that played nicely with a classic idiom — Leave no stone unturned — by hiding stones within the other theme entries. For instance, AGATE read out backwards in TILL WE MEET AGAIN. He let us in on this clever hook with the revealer NO ENOTS UNTURNED. Nicely done.

(Brendan Emmett Quigley did something similar with his “Halfbacks” puzzle from June 8th, with entries like HIGH GERARD, RADIO SIDNEY, and ALFRED PANTS, as did Erik Agard with the “Bottoms Up” puzzle from the Indie 500 Meta puzzle pack, sneaking drinks like OJ and DECAF into the down-reading entries JO WALTON and FACED THE TRUTH.)

Quigley took it a step further with his April 6th puzzle “Catch You on the Rebound,” as the themed entries required you to fill in the boxes one letter at a time, then place the rest of the letters backwards on the same line, forcing two letters to share squares. For instance, THE POINT OF NO RETURN spelled out THEPOI(NN)(TR)(OU)(FT)(NE)(OR), with RETURN reading backwards in the boxes.

Alex Eaton-Salners did a tough variation on this idea in Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords with “Kicking Off the Fourth,” as his theme entries started backwards and then doubled back on themselves. For instance, POTATOPEELER was written as ATOPEELER, with the POT reading backwards, “kicking off the fourth” letter with the A, then reading forward with the rest of the entry. NRUBBER for BURNRUBBER, EDISHES for SIDEDISHES, and AVAVOOM for VAVAVAVOOM were just some of the NINE entries that fit the pattern. A top 5 puzzle of the year for me, easily.

[Image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

And I have to close out today’s post by mentioning Alex again for his “Read the Fine Print” Fireball Crosswords puzzle. This one actually used some of the numbers within the grid as part of the entries. Box 1 was filled with a 1 for 1 CUP and 1 PIN, Box 50 helped form 50 FIRST DATES and 50 CENT, and so on. I’ve never seen the actual cluing numbers incorporated into the answers like that before. Really terrific stuff.

There were so many great, creative, well-constructed puzzles that a post like this just scratches the surface. (Especially since I’m behind on my solving for The Crosswords Club and a few other outlets!)

I’m sure I missed plenty of worthy puzzles from constructors all over. Feel free to let me know your favorites in the comments section below! (And come back tomorrow to learn some of the favorites from others in the puzzle community!)

I’m continually amazed by the innovation, reinvention, and endless possibilities clever constructors can mine from these curious collections of white and black squares.

I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us in 2018.


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Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Pam Klawitter

One of the Daily POP Crosswords app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the last month or so, we’ve been introducing you to some of them. You might not recognize every name at first, but rest assured… they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

In this installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Pam Klawitter!

How did you get started in puzzles?

I guess you’d say being a crossword constructor is my post-teaching “retirement career.” I’ve always loved all types of puzzles, and after spending many years teaching gifted students who are masters of all things word-related, I was sure it would be a simple task to teach myself how to construct a crossword puzzle. Not true! It was evident in my earliest puzzles, that I needed lots of assistance. I give full credit to the editors that stuck it out and guided me through the process.

I persevered and finally had my very first puzzle published in The Washington Post in 2007. That was followed by my first Los Angeles Times and New York Times puzzles in 2008. After that, there was no going back!

It surprises me now to say I’ve had over 400 puzzles published in a variety of venues. Being a regular constructor for The Crosswords Club is how I began working with Patti Varol. With 100+ puzzles under my belt there, I am really happy that she asked me to be a part of this new group.

What problems have you encountered in constructing crosswords?

I would have to say that, for me, coming up with the themes has always been the easiest part of this journey. Getting exactly the right fill — not so much!

Thankfully, Patti and several other editors have had the patience of Job in allowing me to keep at it until I get it right. While many words could fill the boxes, it’s hard to find the perfect mix of interesting yet not obscure nor too difficult fill. That’s been a real learning process!

Starting out, it was hard to find cohesive themes, but now that I’ve been at it a while, I find that theme ideas are EVERYWHERE! This is evidenced by the stacks of scraps of paper and sticky notes with ideas scribbled on them that surround me like Pig-Pen’s cloud of dust!

What do you enjoy about Daily POP Crosswords?

I love the Daily POP Crosswords puzzles because they are a bit more straightforward than Sunday-size puzzles, thus a bit easier to fill. (For me, that’s a definite plus!)

I also love the pop culture aspect of these puzzles, which allows for all sorts of up-to- the-minute themes. I’ve learned so much! Book Smarts and TV Time are probably my favorite categories.


A huge thank you to Pam for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Crosswords app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

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