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!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Indie 500 Puzzle edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

June 4 marked the second annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Peter Broda, Andy Kravis, and Angela Olsen Halsted. And instead of last year’s racing theme, this year was prom-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and after a few weeks, I had the opportunity to sit down and tackle the six puzzles prepared for the event. And today, after a few weeks’ reflection, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.


[Image courtesy of Teen Vogue.]

Puzzle 1: Canned Music by Peter Broda and Lena Webb

The opening puzzle got solvers off to a playful start with three themed song titles tied together by the phrase “That’s my jam,” highlighting the love of wordplay that typifies the Indie 500 puzzles.

Broda and Webb’s partnership was a fruitful one, giving us a nicely constructed grid with very little crosswordese (and a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference to boot!).

Interesting grid entries included PHONES IT IN, BUPKIS, WATERWORN, and BIKER BAR, and my favorite clue was either “Server error?” for LET or “Cans of Prince Albert, for short?” for WCS.

[Image courtesy of TheChive.com.]

Puzzle 2: A Modest Promposal by Andy Kravis and Neville Fogarty

Five prom-themed puns awaited solvers in this 17x effort, making it quite a bit easier than last year’s Puzzle #2 (which involved shared boxes and some diabolical letter swaps), but remained a very fun and engaging solve. The punny entries were colorful, definitely bringing back memories of forgotten prom tropes from my own high school days.

I was surprised to see a little grid repetition with the word OUT in two different entries, but given the tight construction and fun vocabulary overall, that’s easy to overlook.

Interesting grid entries included EDWARD V, HOTWIRE, and R.L. STINE, and my favorite clues were “Wilson that Tom Hanks talks to a lot” for RITA, “Coastal retreat?” for EBB, and “Bird that’s a real head-turner?” for OWL.

Puzzle 3: I Now Pronounce You… by Sam Trabucco

Last year, Puzzle 3 was guest constructor Finn Vigeland’s time to shine, and this year, guest constructor Sam Trabucco ably stepped up to join the topnotch puzzlers that organized this year’s event. Sam’s puzzle interrupted the prom theme and centered around a bad cell phone connection, allowing tongue-in-cheek misheard words to populate his grid (like CORPSE for “Military subdivision”).

Interesting grid entries included DO THE MATH, SKYPE DATE, and HOT SECOND, and my favorite clues were “Characters often found to be up in arms?” for YMCA and “Apostrophe, in emoticons” for TEAR. (And points for effort should definitely go to the clue “El numero de Fibonacci despues de cinco” for OCHO. It’s not often that Spanish and math cross over in a clue like that.)

[Image courtesy of Freeway Dance Studios.]

Puzzle 4: Do I Hear a Waltz? by Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan

Without a doubt my favorite puzzle from this year’s tournament, Puzzle 4 hid its theme in its cluing rather than a series of themed entries. (One entry in the center hinted at the clever cluing construction). Instead, 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.

None of the clues feel forced at all, and the fun fill of the grid allowed for a lot of interesting grid entries, like OH C’MON, TRUST ME, ART THIEF, T-REX, and FEMINIST.

My favorite clues were “Cafeteria trays, sometimes” for SLEDS, “Had a few spare moments, perhaps?” for BOWLED, and “High point on a mattress?” for CLIMAX (especially when “Low point on a mattress” for SAG was the previous clue).

[Image courtesy of Celebrity Radio DJs.com.]

Puzzle 5: Group Dance by the Indie 500 Team

For the penultimate puzzle, all of the organizers collaborated on a puzzle that utilized all of the previous themes, as well as having its own twist: two different hidden links. (The circled letters in the theme entries all spell out words that can follow the word WATER, as in WATERLOO or WATERSPOUT, while the shaded words can all follow the phrase LET IT, as in LET IT GO or LET IT RIDE.)

It’s an impressive way to tie all of the puzzles together and include the voices of all of the collaborators. (The clues themselves are even credited to different speakers.)

With interesting grid entries like PIT STAINS, EWOK, and NEAR YOU (along with some odd ones, like TEA BARS and SALARY LIMIT), the puzzle was challenging without being daunting or unfair.

My favorite clues were “Gatorade showers?” for ADS and “Really, really, really not look forward to” for DREAD.

[Say, since we’re talking crosswords, have you checked out the Penny Dell
Crosswords App for both iOS and Android devices? /shameless plug.]

Puzzle 6: The Dance-Off by Angela Olsen Halsted and Kameron Austin Collins

The closing puzzle of the tournament was offered in two difficulty levels: the Inside Track (designated for solvers who finished in the top 25% of the field in a crossword tournament with published standings in the past 5 years) and the Outside Track (designated for everyone else). I opted for the Inside Track, then looked over the cluing for the Outside Track.

This themeless closer was the toughest puzzle of the day, as you might expect, with tough, conversational entries like OH COME NOW and IT’S SO EASY all over. But, despite the many long entries and tight construction, there was very little crosswordese or obscurity to throw you off-track. It’s a great grid with some brutal cluing.

My favorite grid entry was easily MWAHAHAHA, though SILENT A and HOT DAMN were close runners-up, and my favorite clue was “Person who tunes in on Sundays and sees a bunch of spoilers” for NASCAR FAN. Great stuff.


Overall, I thought this year’s Indie 500 was more accessible than last year’s, an engaging and worthy series of puzzles to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure. The prom theme was brilliantly executed, and the cluing surpassed last year in both cleverness and style.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Last year, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered top-notch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The second edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 4, and this year, it’s all decked out in a prom motif.

I reached out to the team behind last year’s event, and constructor/director Andy Kravis was happy to answer my questions and offer some insight into this year’s event.

Andy has been published in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Los Angeles Times, and other venues, and he was excited to discuss this year’s tournament with the PuzzleNation audience.

1.) I’m very glad to see The Indie 500 returning for a second year. What did you learn from the inaugural event, and what are you hoping to change/improve?

We’re glad to be back! Here’s a list of things we learned from the inaugural Indie 500:

How to run a crossword tournament.

None of us had ever done anything like this before, so every step was brand new to us. We all went into it knowing that building our own crossword tournament from the ground up was going to be a lot of work, but I don’t think any of us fully appreciated how much work it would be until we were already neck-deep in it. We started planning about a year in advance, and one thing I learned is that it takes almost exactly a year to plan a successful Indie 500, even with a team of five directors and a ton of wonderful volunteer test-solvers and staffers.

As for the tournament itself, a lot of our more ambitious ideas — writing a meta suite to raise funds for the tournament, using a new scoring system, having a contest to find a tourney puzzle by a new constructor — worked out really well, so we brought them back this year. We got some great feedback from attendees about which puzzles they enjoyed most, which parts of the program worked well, and so on, all of which we incorporated into our planning for this year. On the whole, the tournament will look a lot like last year’s: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a finals puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

I would say the most visible change we’re making is getting lots of new faces involved. After last year’s event, Evan Birnholz was hired as the Washington Post‘s new crossword constructor (whoo!), and Neville Fogarty entered the last year of his Ph.D program, so they both had to step away from their directorial duties. We were thrilled to bring on Angela Olson Halsted, who’s been a terrific addition to our team, and we’ve also gotten to work with a lot of really talented constructors this year as well.

We’re always open to ideas of how to improve the tournament experience, so feel free to e-mail us at xwordtournament@gmail.com if you have suggestions.

[Andy, alongside Sara Nies, solves at the 2015 Lollapuzzoola event.]

2.) Last year’s theme was racing, and this year’s theme is prom. What about prom appealed to the team more than other possibilities?

We knew almost immediately after wrapping last year’s tournament that we wanted this year’s Indie 500 to be prom themed. The biggest upside, and the main reason we chose it as our theme, is that we really wanted to see what we could do when working with other new constructors in teams. By bringing on prom dates, we now have the opportunity to showcase not just the work of our contest winner but also of the additional constructors we’ve invited. Some of our constructing teams bring very different voices to the constructing process, and it’s been really cool to see how those styles have meshed. And of course you don’t have to take a date to prom — you can go solo, or you can go with a group — and we’ve also kept that in mind while planning the tournament.

We also love the aesthetics of prom. As we tossed around ideas for this year’s tournament, we kept returning to the similarities between a disco ball and a crossword grid, and Raina Zheng did an awesome job designing this year’s logo with that idea in mind. It was easy for us to see the aesthetics of crosswords in disco balls, tuxedos, limousines, and dance floors, and it’s also fun for us to think of ways to inject some of the colorful elements of prom back into a crossword tournament.

Plus, our tradition of playing entrance music for our finalists makes possibly more sense with a prom theme than it did with a racing theme.

In a broad metaphorical sense, I think prom is more in line with what we’re about than racing anyway. Racing seems like a natural fit for a crossword tournament — it’s an individual pursuit that’s about speed (plus the checkered flag and the Indy/Indie pun were too good to resist). But I think what’s great about crossword tournaments is that crossword people have an excuse to get together and have fun and celebrate.

[Possible crossword prom looks?]

3.) One of my favorite aspects of The Indie 500 is that you hold a contest for constructors to join the team and contribute a puzzle to the tournament. Last year’s winner was Finn Vigeland, and this year’s winner is puzzle newcomer Sam Trabucco. What sort of response did you get when you announced this year’s contest, and what made Sam stand out?

Those of you who solved last year’s puzzles know just how lucky we were to get Finn’s submission. We got a lot of excellent puzzles that year, quite a few of which we’ve since been pleased to see published in venues like AV Club and Fireball Crosswords.

We chose Finn’s puzzle because it had a unique combination of clean and lively fill, clues with a clear voice, and a tricky theme that had the potential to incorporate a unique visual element (namely, the candy bars that ended up going in the grid). The version of the puzzle that ran during the tournament ended up being one of my favorite puzzles that year.

[One of the candy bars from Finn Vigeland’s Indie 500 puzzle.]

We didn’t get quite as many submissions this year, and yet picking a winner was just as tough. After narrowing the group of submissions to four or five entries that stood out to us as the best of the bunch, we debated for a long time before picking the puzzle that turned out to be Sam’s. Without giving too much away, what we liked about Sam’s submission was that the theme was something we hadn’t seen before, and the fill was really fresh and showed a point of view.

One thing I want to mention is that after we unblinded the submissions, we were really disappointed not to have received more entries from women and people of color. We’ve already started talking about what we can do to encourage more submissions from that pool of talent next year. This is a top priority for us in running the best indie crossword tournament we can.

4.) Finally, and most importantly, will there still be pie?

Yes, there will be pie. In fact, we’re considering a Pie-Only division in 2017.

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

(I’m already signed up to solve from home, and I can’t wait to see this year’s puzzles.)


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