Themeless Crosswords Vs. Themed Crosswords?

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When you think of crossword puzzles, what comes to mind? The grid first, or maybe the clues? When you picture your default crossword, is it a themed puzzle or themeless?

I ask because something of a kerfuffle was sparked on Twitter over the weekend regarding themeless puzzles vs. themed puzzles, and as you might expect, fellow puzzler, I have thoughts on the subject.

So how did all this start? With a blog post by crossword reviewer Rex Parker.

If you’re unaware, Rex is a constructor in his own right, but is far better known in the crossword world for his curmudgeonly reviews of the New York Times crossword. He frequently makes fair points, but they can be lost amid his personal views regarding particular clues and entries. (Often, if he doesn’t know it, it’s obscure. Which is not the same thing at all.) He’s sort of a “you love him or you don’t” figure in the crossword sphere.

I genuinely believe his commentary, however inconsistent or caustic at times, comes from a sincere desire to be engaged, entertained, and wowed by the puzzles he is so clearly invested in. But again, sometimes he can’t see the forest for the trees, and when your brand is “guy who bellyaches about crosswords,” you often play into what people expect from you.

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[Now, to be fair, Rex is no Grandpa Simpson. But I simply couldn’t resist, given how he’s become synonymous with “grumpy fan who knows better than you.” And I’m so so very tired of gatekeeping fandom in general.]

And on Sunday, he carved into a Robyn Weintraub 21x themeless crossword with some serious vitriol:

This is very good for what it is, but unfortunately (for me), what it is is a Sunday themeless, and these are just never going to be interesting to me. As I’ve said before, it’s a giant (literally, giant! 21×21!) shrug. A Sunday-sized “we give up, here’s some stuff.” It’s too easy to be that interesting, and since the grid is so big, the construction doesn’t feel particularly special.

That is, yeah, you can get a lot of longish answers into a 21×21. There’s lots of room. I just don’t care as much as I ought to care. And today’s grid shape was really vanilla. No, wait, I like vanilla. A vanilla malt is the best thing in the world. Let’s call it “boilerplate” instead. It looks like a template of some kind. It’s a very clean grid, and many of the entries here are interesting, but the overall effect of said entries in a Sunday themeless is ho-hum.

There’s a reason the NYTXW didn’t do Sunday themelesses until, what, like two or three years ago? It’s because they’re a cop-out. I hear that some people enjoy them. I’m happy for them. For me, they’re a non-event. There’s no real low, no real high, just … middle middle middle. Time passes, and then the puzzle is done. Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest. Certainly, from a blogging perspective, this is much much worse, as there’s really hardly anything to say.

Wow.

Now, this post is not intended to be a burial of Rex and his opinions. Even though I wholeheartedly disagree with his dim view of his puzzle.

It’s worth discussing because I’m someone who didn’t initially get the appeal of themeless crosswords.

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[Robyn’s thoroughly impressive Sunday themeless grid.]

I’ve always liked puzzles, and tried my hand at solving New York Times-level crosswords many times before I ended up as part of the puzzle world. Once I really immersed myself in themed puzzles, I quickly started to appreciate the amount of skill, creativity, and hard work that went into a satisfying themed crossword.

I was slower to come around on themeless puzzles. I liked figuring out the trick of a themed puzzle, and I didn’t give themeless puzzles much thought. Thankfully, friends of the blog Patti Varol and Keith Yarborough (both of whom also helped open my eyes to so many terrific puzzle outlets and constructors) encouraged me to solve themeless puzzles more.

And I started to see that you don’t need a theme to show off the same skill, creativity, and hard work that goes into a crossword.

As I said in my wrap-up of the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League (yeah, I went from never solving themeless crosswords to eagerly anticipating a two-month tournament full of them!):

I really enjoyed seeing what creative constructors could do with crosswords once freed from the shackles of a theme. The long, crossing entries can certainly be intimidating at the start — especially if you read three or four clues in a row and feel like your brain has gone blank — but the sheer inventiveness of the entries you get to see, often stacked close together, is really cool.

And, like a jigsaw puzzle, the solving experience sneaks up on you. You get a few words here, a few letters there, and suddenly everything starts to fall into place. Clues that eluded you make total sense on a second or third reading, or the now-obvious wordplay punches you in the face.

Eventually, you’re left with a full grid and a real sense of accomplishment. (Not to mention a growing sense of wonder that the constructor managed to make all those crossings work.)

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And it’s disappointing that an influential voice in crosswords sees a themeless Sunday puzzle as a waste of time. (Constructor Eric Berlin has rightfully noted that Rex isn’t against all themeless puzzles, and has stated in the past that he often looks forward to the Friday themeless.)

Which makes it all the more strange that he’d choose to die on this particular hill. Robyn is a well-respected constructor, and her byline alone is a welcome sight for many puzzle fans, themeless or themed. The response online to this themeless puzzle was very positive overall; even in the comments section of Rex’s blog post, the majority of the responses celebrated Robyn’s themeless as a terrific solve.

I would argue that the occasional Sunday themeless puzzle is a good thing. Not only is it a nice break from the expected norm, but having puzzles the caliber of this one will bring more eyes to the merits of themeless crosswords in general.

The sheer variety in fresh, exciting, and thought-provoking grid entries alone makes them worthwhile. Themed puzzles are great, obviously, but they can also severely limit how interesting you can make the rest of the grid once the theme has been figured out.

Great constructors and engaging cluing can overcome that, but it’s a limitation that themeless crosswords simply don’t have. The fill is EVERYTHING, and that pushes constructors to be as creative as possible with their grid designs, the often ambitious crossings and stacks of long entries, and all that delightfully unexpected vocabulary.

Rex says, “Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest.”

I think you’ll find many solvers and constructors disagree. There’s as much beauty and value in a skilled themeless as there is in a deftly-constructed themed puzzle.

And to say a well-constructed themeless is on par with a “disastrous” themed puzzle is just ridiculous. Sure, for his brand, he gets more mileage taking apart a bad puzzle than discussing a good one, but a good solve and good blog fodder aren’t the same thing at all.

As I said before, you can learn a lot from Rex’s blog. Plenty of constructors have gleaned valuable lessons about theme entries, grid fill, and more from his critiques. But punching down against a particular style of crosswording benefits no one, particularly when it can easily be misconstrued as a shot against themeless puzzles in general..

Thank you, Robyn Weintraub, for a banger of a Sunday puzzle, and thank you, Evan Birnholz, for championing the cause of themeless crosswords (and bringing this to my attention.)

Do you enjoy themeless puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Malaika Handa!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the sixth edition of our series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Malaika Handa as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

You have to be fairly ambitious to get into constructing crosswords, but Malaika Handa is setting the bar pretty high.

Less than a year into her cruciverbalism career, she’s already been published in outlets like Grids These Days, Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and the American Values Club Crossword.

But she’s best known as the creator and curator of 7xwords, an attempt to create a puzzle for every possible 7×7 crossword grid in a single year. If that’s not impressive enough, she launched 7xwords after having only constructed crosswords for a few months!

Malaika was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Malaika Handa

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I started solving the New York Times puzzle about two years ago, when I got a job that had a commute. Eventually, we switched to working from home, but I still would solve the puzzle every morning. I didn’t realize regular people could make puzzles (“crossword constructor” felt akin to “astronaut” in terms of attainability) until a crossword blogger I liked refilled a corner as an example of how to make it better. That blew my mind! I started making mini puzzles in Excel, and then finally bought Crossfire around October 2020. Hand gridding is not for me, I’ve learned!

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

I really don’t think there’s such a thing as a canonical great puzzle– or if there is, I am frankly uninterested. Appealing to every single solver seems like an impossible task, and a good way to end up with a puzzle that’s a little flat and lifeless. I like to solve puzzles that are fun for me, Malaika Handa, to solve! (I hope that framing doesn’t seem selfish.) Puzzles with pop culture references that I know, computer / math stuff, make-up / fashion stuff, Twitter slang.

Adam Aaronson had a puzzle with SYNTACTIC SUGAR in it, and I plunked it in with no crossings. I solved the rest of the puzzle floating on a cloud. I love that term so much– when I was a teaching assistant in college (one of my favorite jobs I’ve had) I taught it to my students, and I think it is a lovely and evocative phrase. I bet a lot of people had never heard of SYNTACTIC SUGAR before, so maybe that was really tough for them, but that’s okay. We don’t have to have the same opinion on everything.

What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own? 

When I write puzzles, I like to use fill and clues that make me really excited, even if it’s things other people might not have heard of. (I think that’s called “voice,” by the way.) Once I clued ISLA as [Stephanie Perkins’ heroine] and all my test solvers said they had never heard of that reference. I kept it in the puzzle anyway.

Then my older sister solved it and when she got to that clue, she texted me with a zillion exclamation points and we freaked out over how good Stephanie Perkins’ books are. My number one advice to other constructors is: If a particular entry doesn’t make you excited, what is it doing in your puzzle? (By the way, sometimes the answer is “it’s holding in place three other entries that make me excited” and I think that’s fine.)

Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

I love hearing people’s favorite clues. Mine are Robyn Weintraub’s [Batting equipment?] for FAKE EYELASHES, and Mollie Cowger’s [“Thank God it’s Friday”?] for SHABBAT SHALOM, both of which I, no exaggeration, think about probably once a week. My favorite clues that I’ve written are always clues from my most recent puzzles. So right now there’s 50-Across from this puzzle ((Editor’s note: Great clue, but NSFW)), or [Wireless device] from this puzzle.

3. Your 7xwords puzzle blog has become something of a sensation in the puzzle world, shouted out by fellow constructors like Erica Wojcik, Kevin Trickey and May Huang. Where did the concept for 7xwords come from? What have you learned from the project so far? Will 7xwords reach its ambitious goal by week 52?

The site started with the discovery that there are 312 legal 7×7 crossword grids, which works out to a six-days-a-week midi puzzle. (I talk more about the 7xwords origin story and the math behind it in this episode of Fill Me In, at around 24:30. And if you’re curious about the code I used to build the grids, feel free to message me on Twitter!)

I’ve learned so much from this project, I don’t even know where to start. Stuff like “How to make an html page exist on the Internet instead of just locally on my computer” and “Having a separate email address for a project like this will make your life one hundred times easier.” I’ve also gotten a lot better at articulating why a particular clue or crossing feels like it needs improvement. That’s a skill that has come from copy editing *checks notes* about 150 midi puzzles. Back in January, I was operating mostly under vibes (“this feels like it could be better”) but now I can usually identify what needs fixing, and how to fix it.

As for whether we’ll reach the goal… I do have a constructor locked down for every single grid. So it feels very promising. I have also seen that final grid, with no black squares, and it exists. So, even more promising!

4. What’s next for Malaika Handa?

The most concrete thing coming up is my puzzle in the Boswords summer tournament! Registration will open on July 1. Join us!! It’s going to be a super fun time.

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

I would love for solvers to remember that just because they personally didn’t like a puzzle doesn’t (necessarily) mean the puzzle should not have been published. (Sometimes it does, of course. Like Woody Allen tribute puzzles– we can just stop with those.)

Also, when you’re solving, look up entries that you don’t know! It’s a game, not a test.


A huge thank you to Malaika for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out her 7xwords puzzle site for both the 7×7 puzzles and her other crosswords! Whatever she does next, I’m sure it will be brilliant!

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The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament Returns This Weekend!

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Hello fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

Normally, this reminder post would go up on Friday, but since the deadline to register to participate in this year’s virtual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is noon tomorrow, we’re posting a day early.

Yes, the 43rd edition of the ACPT — jokingly referred to as the Nerd Olympics — has gone online this year (though some folks are still attending in person). But it’s not just the competition puzzles! Prizes, panels, and more are planned across the weekend.

A full slate of events has been scheduled for Friday through Sunday, including the Merl Reagle Award, puzzle workshops, trivia and games, and the live-solving finals, including commentary from Greg Pliska and Ophira Eisenberg!

But who is constructing this year’s puzzles, you ask? A fine question.

Constructors Sam Ezersky, Emily Carroll, Patrick Berry, Kevin Der, Lynn Lempel, Mike Shenk, Ruth Bloomfield Margolin, and Robyn Weintraub are all contributing puzzles to this year’s tournament.

You can click here to register and visit the ACPT website for full details!

Will you be competing, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 13 puzzles!

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The thirteenth edition of Lollapuzzoola, as is tradition, arrived on a Saturday in August, but for the first time ever, it was hosted online to allow tournament solving from home. As one of the highlights of the puzzly calendar, I was glad to see it make the virtual jump, as Boswords did before it.

I was not in virtual attendance, but I did sign up for the Next Day Division puzzle packet. 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.

This year’s theme was “Don’t Touch That Dial!” so every puzzle had something to do with television or TV channels, and the constructors were clearly inspired in all sorts of ways. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.


Instead of Brian Cimmet’s usual Twinlets puzzle as a warm-up, this year featured two practice puzzles. The first, constructed by Patrick Blindauer and entitled “I Want My MTV,” allowed solvers to hit the ground running.

The accessible theme — adding the letter M to established TV shows, a la SCOOBYDOOM or AMERICAN MIDOL — is the sort of fun and frivolous idea to spark solver imaginations and ready them for a proper day of puzzling.

Interesting grid entries included DATUM and I’LL BE BACK (as well as some nice misdirection with YEE-haw instead of HEE haw), and my favorite clue was “Traffic cop?” for NARC.

The second practice puzzle, a themeless mini constructed by Brian Cimmet, offered a slight uptick in difficulty and a nice preview of the sort of solving tournament attendees would see in the final.

Interesting grid entries included BOBA TEA, ORCHESTRATE, and ROLLED R (as well as tournament constructor STELLA Zawistowski getting referenced!), and my favorite clue was “One of three in ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day'” for COMMA.

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Puzzle 1: Soap Operas by Brooke Husic

The competition puzzles kicked off with this terrific opener, a 17×13 grid that showed off the flexibility and creativity of construction and grid design that keeps Lollapuzzoola fresh. (Also, I’m a sucker for a punny start to a tournament, so the theme was a plus for me.)

The themed entries featured commercial soap brands as part of common phrases (like IVORY TOWER and DOVE TAILED), which were then clued as “soap operas” for viewers.

It was a nicely constructed grid that flowed well, and it’s exactly the sort of puzzle to introduce new solvers to tournament puzzles while entertaining the established vets.

Interesting grid entries included DIWALI, ACADIA, and HOPE SO, and my favorite clue was “Card game that can go on and on and on and on and on and on and on, like this clue” for WAR.

Puzzle 2: The Final Countdown by Sid Sivakumar

This tall, thin 12×25 grid (coupled with THAT title) virtually guaranteed that Europe’s faux-epic anthem would be stuck in your head for a good chunk of the tournament, but I’ll forgive Sid, because I really enjoyed this puzzle’s hook.

The theme entries all began with a number (like 4 LETTER WORDS or 3-D TELEVISION), and as you expect, they counted down until reaching the climactic pronouncement AND WE’RE LIVE at the bottom part of the grid. It’s a fun idea that was complimented nicely by the unusual grid, and the puzzle flowed nicely from top to bottom as the entries counted down.

Interesting grid entries included PEARLED, RETURN KEY, MR SULU (which, before I looked at the clue, I kinda hoped would be MR. SHOW), and BUNGALOW. My favorite clues were “[Feed me! Pet me! Feed me! Play with me!] … or actually sometimes [Leave me alone!]” for MEOW and “‘Do not feed the ____’ (advice for bridge travelers and internet users)” for TROLL.

At this point, I noticed that both Puzzle 1 and 2 had an all-caps clue where the answer was a TV network. This feature continued throughout the tournament as a nice little through line, though its ultimate purpose wouldn’t reveal itself until after Puzzle 5. Stay tuned.

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[Image courtesy of Pixar.]

Puzzle 3: Flipping Channels by Rachel Fabi

A swapping-themed puzzle is practically a tradition at Lollapuzzoola at this point, so I wasn’t at all surprised to see that idea adapted for TV with Puzzle 3’s hook. Each pair of theme entries not only included the names of channel, but swapped the second halves of phrases including those channels. For instance FOXGLOVES and OXYGENMOLECULES became OXYGENGLOVES and FOXMOLECULES.

As I solved, I wasn’t sure if these would be random pairs swapped, mirrored pairs swapped, or a continuous chain of swaps throughout the puzzle, so it took me a little longer to complete the grid. This was a definite step-up in difficulty from Puzzle 1 and 2, but not excessively so. (Some of the vocabulary also slowed me down, since I didn’t know NITTANY or INFODEMIC.) Still, it was a solid puzzle and an appropriate challenge for the midway point of the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included NOGOODNIK, CHEETO, HOT POCKET, GO GREEN, and the aforementioned INFODEMIC, and my favorite clues were “Nanjiani’s ‘The Lovebirds’ costar” for RAE and “Bisexual Greta of Old Hollywood” for GARBO, two clues that felt very fresh and topical, particularly for entries that solvers have seen plenty of times before.

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[Image courtesy of Game Show Network.]

Puzzle 4: Deal or No Deal by joon pahk

A big jump in difficulty and complexity, Puzzle 4 was an immensely clever and well-executed grid that took a familiar crossword concept — removing or adding letters from entries — and mined it for unexpected depth. On the left-hand side of the grid, a letter was added to both the clue AND the entry. For example, “Entranced cover” clued DAWNING. [Bolding is my own to highlight the added letter.]

On the right-hand side of the grid (but in the same row, one black square away), that entry was complemented by the same letter subtracted from both clue AND entry. The example above, for instance, was matched by “Go _own a spout” cluing _RAIN OUT. [Again, spacing added is my own to highlight the missing letter.]

These letter trades — the deal or no deal of the title — were tightly executed and made total sense to the solver without any explanation needed. Not only that, but the added/missing letter was always taken from the same part of the word on the other side! (Third letter E in FREIGHT was the missing third letter in SH_ARING next door.)

It’s incredibly impressive construction that is nicely balanced by solid fill and strong cluing. This is easily my favorite joon pahk puzzle I’ve ever solved, and will no doubt make my list of top puzzles of the year.

Interesting grid entries included GONZAGA, MEERKAT, NIP/TUCK, TWYLA, and SCHLEP, and my favorite clues were “Slightly subpar, ironically” for ONE OVER, “Wednesday the third?” for SILENT D, and “Snow or paint, in certain arenas” for AMMO.

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Puzzle 5: Schedule Swaps by Stella Zawistowski

This 21x marked the end of the regular tournament puzzles, and it felt like a suitable final boss for most solvers in the competition. The grid was dense, well-constructed, and challenging, featuring another smartly-executed swapping gimmick. This time around, the theme was common phrases where one of the words was also a TV show, but that show was replaced with another TV show to make a new phrase.

For example, the phrase BIRTHING COACH became BIRTHING SCRUBS as COACH was relocated elsewhere in the grid. Fitting in all these themed entries — six of them! — plus their accompanying TV shows was no doubt a hefty challenge for the constructor, but Zawistowski made it feel effortless in this demanding but well-made puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included GALILEO, SAN PEDRO, DISCIPLE, PETSIT, AIRPOPS, and SO SUE ME (as well as the thoroughly baffling ONE O’ CAT, which I had to look up after), and my favorite clue was “‘Silver Springs,’ to ‘Go Your Own Way'” for B-SIDE.

As for the all-caps TV network clues we spotted earlier? They also appeared in Puzzles 3, 4, and 5, and it turns out, they were part of a clever little metapuzzle hidden in the tournament grids.

The five TV networks, one in each puzzle, turned out to be TBS, VH1, SyFy, ESPN, and TNT. And if you take the first letter of each, you get the hidden answer TV SET.

Very nicely done, constructors!

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Puzzle 6: Finals by Robyn Weintraub

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 a pair of 12-letter entries from classic children’s television as anchors for the puzzle — MISTER ROGERS and BERT AND ERNIE — Weintraub delivered a tight grid with some strong fill and plenty of long, crossing entries in the corners to keep solvers guessing.

For me, this was a nice tournament landmark, as I powered through the Express clues and completed the grid without having to reference the easier Local clues once. I know this is commonplace for the top solvers, but it was a nice confidence boost for me as an enthusiastic solver, but hardly the fastest or the most competent.

It was a perfect final puzzle to wrap up one of the most consistent and enjoyable puzzle sets they’ve ever assembled for the tournament. With over 1,000 solvers participating through the online format, I can’t think of a better way to introduce them to the spirit and style of Lollapuzzoola than this year’s puzzles. Nicely done, team!

Interesting grid entries included WENT TO BED, SQUARE PEG, FALSE ALARM, PECOS, and NSFW. Both the Local and Express sets of clues had some gems, so I’ll list them separately below:

Local clues:

  • “Big cheese with the bacon” for CFO
  • “Escape room finds” for KEYS
  • “Month in which National ‘Twilight Zone’ Day is observed” for MAY
  • “‘____ Pressure’ (‘Baywatch’ episode with a punny title)” for PIER

Express clues:

  • “Place after place” for SHOW
  • “Canal zone?” for EAR
  • “‘Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Aina i ka Pono’ or ‘Excelsior'” for STATE MOTTO
  • “PBS ‘Viewers Like You'” for DONORS
  • “‘Panic at Malibu ____’ (‘Baywatch’ pilot episode) for PIER

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[Top(less) puzzlers.]

There was also a tiebreaker themeless mini by Amanda Rafkin (who we recently interviewed!). The mini was a quick and satisfying solve, loaded with great vocabulary, offering a nice cooldown after a strong tournament and several really engaging puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included MACARONI ART and SO EXTRA, and my favorite clue from the mini was “One paying dollars for quarters” for TENANT.


The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was little crosswordese, and the creative themes, grid designs, and puzzle mechanics ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the puzzles would linger in your memory.

Mission accomplished, and congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen, especially in a virtual format with so many additional solvers. Lollapuzzoola is only getting more creative, more groundbreaking, and more clever with each passing year, and it’s just awesome to watch it grow and evolve.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!


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Lollapuzzoola 13 Lands This Weekend! (Virtually!)

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Yes, “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August” is bringing a New York Saturday in August to you, as Lollapuzzoola 13 goes virtual.

Whether you’ll be solving on that Saturday or as part of the Next Day Division, you’re sure to encounter some top-notch puzzles worthy of the Lollapuzzoola name.

Just look at the constructors involved in this year’s tournament! Stella Zawistowski and Robyn Weintraub return for the second year in a row, and they’ll be joined Rachel Fabi, Brooke Husic, joon pahk, and Sid Sivakumar (who just constructed for this year’s Boswords tournament). I can’t wait to see what they have in store for the competitors!

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Starting around 12:30pm Eastern, you can follow along on the Twitch livestream that will be running for the duration of the tournament. In addition to the five tournament puzzles and championship rounds, there will be bonus games and a virtual pizza party! (Be sure to bring your own pizza.)

This is not only another wonderful opportunity to bring the puzzle community together, it’s also a charitable event, as a portion of the proceeds from the tournament will be donated to Color of Change and the Save the Children Coronavirus Response Fund.

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

You can click here for all things Lollapuzzoola, and to check out last year’s tournament puzzles, click here for our in-depth review!

Are you planning on attending Lollapuzzoola 13 or solving from home? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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A Cornucopia of Clever Clues

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Last month, in the afterglow of the Crossword Tournament From Your Couch event, I waxed nostalgic about some of the clever and tricky cluing that the constructors employed to keep the solvers on their toes.

I had so much fun poring over those puzzles and highlighting the clues that caught my eye that I’ve decided to do it again.

You see, I keep track of favorite clues from constructors as I solve various crosswords. Not only are they often witty, hilarious, and/or impressive, but they inspire me as a puzzler to always try to find entertaining, engaging new angles for clues.

So here are some favorites from my personal clue vault.

(And I’m crediting the constructor listed on the byline for each clue. These clues may have been created elsewhere and reused, created by the constructor, or changed by an editor, I have no way of knowing. So I’m just doing my best to give credit where credit is due.)


I’m a sucker for delicious wordplay, and thanks to a plethora of ingenious constructors, modern crosswords are rarely lacking in linguistic legerdemain.

One of my favorite cluing tropes is the old word-form switcheroo, when a constructor makes you think the clue is one word form (a verb, for instance) when it’s really a noun, or vice versa.

Erik Agard’s clue “Leaves from a club” certainly sounds like a verb, so it’s a fun surprise when you realize the answer is LETTUCE.

Similarly, the ability to utilize the multiple meanings of words can make for some seriously elusive clues. Mike Shenk’s “Volume setting?” has you thinking music or audio, but the answer SHELF also fits neatly.

Byron Walden is a master at this sort of cluing, as evidenced by his clue “Uruguayan uncle?” for the phrase NO MAS. Given how often TIO, TIA, MADRE, and other Spanish familial terms are used in crosswords, it’s a keen example of misdirection.

keep-right-misdirection

And playing with the tropes of crossword cluing creates opportunities for more wordplay.

“Trick or treat,” a clue from Aimee Lucido, masquerades as the common Halloween phrase when it’s really two examples cluing the answer VERB.

Similarly, “Jets or chargers starter” sounds like a sports reference, but the lowercase “chargers” reveals something else is afoot. The answer to this clue (which appeared in a puzzle constructed by Craig Mazan and Jeff Chen) is TURBO.

Erin Rhode’s “Drum, for some” sounds like a simple example-style clue, but the answer RHYME reveals how she hid her wordplay in plain sight.

Yes, these clues have a lot in common with wordplay clues, but they also play with the conventions of crossword cluing.

owl

Oh, and speaking of clues that hide their trickery in plain sight, I’ve got a few examples of that as well.

Kathy Weinberg once clued ROWS as “15 things in this puzzle,” which is the sort of clue that’s simultaneously so vague and so on-the-nose that it drives me insane.

Similarly, Steve Faiella uses modern slang to hide an answer in plain sight with the clue “Has beef with somebody, say.” That sure sounds like a vernacular use of “has beef with,” so you’re less likely to read the clue as a simple description of EATS, the actual answer. Very sly.

I’m going to close out today’s post with a clue that’s not only clever, it’s economical as well. Robyn Weintraub clued HOLE with two simple words — “Darn it!” — and it’s as hilarious as it is effective.

What are some of your favorite crossword clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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