A Happy Ending and A New Beginning for the Universal Crossword!

Some stories have happy endings, eventually.

In one particular case, it took nearly three years for the satisfying resolution to arrive.

Allow me to explain.

In March of 2016, programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in The New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

The troubling pattern uncovered by Tausig and Pwanson sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, president of Lone Shark Games and puzzle constructor, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

Parker was out as far as USA Today went, but his relationship with Universal Uclick was still unclear. (Even now, despite inquiries, I’m unable to determine if he’s still associated with Universal Uclick.)

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles.

And, as I said, the story has a happy ending. Constructor David Steinberg has been named the new editor of the Universal Crossword and Universal Sunday Crossword!

Although this means the end of The Puzzle Society Crossword that Steinberg was previously editing (as it is being folded into the Universal Crossword), there is a bright side, as it guarantees fresh, well-vetted puzzles for many more solvers from a young, respected voice in the field.

David’s resume is impressive, as the youngest constructor to be published in The LA Times crossword, and the second-youngest to be published in The NY Times. He was also named the crossword editor for the 24 newspapers associated with The Orange County Register.

Between those accomplishments, his work with the archival Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and his prolific and creative crossword output, it’s obvious why Universal Uclick (now Andrew McMeels Universal) would want him for the job.

Several puzzles under his stewardship have already appeared, featuring constructors like Jim Peredo, Doug Peterson, and Samuel A. Donaldson!

David offered some details in an announcement email:

Each week I’m publishing eight themed Universal crosswords—seven 15x15s and one 21×21. Puzzles appear in all venues that formerly ran the Universal Crossword, as well as in those that ran the Puzzle Society Crossword.

Among the many new venues that run the 15x15s are The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Seattle Times; new venues that run both the 15x15s and the 21x21s include The Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News, and The Miami Herald. The Universal Crossword is also truly universal, appearing in countries as far-flung as China, India, and Saudi Arabia!

We wish David the best of luck in his latest puzzly endeavor. We know the Universal Crossword is in great hands!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Lollapuzzoola Puzzles 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.

August 13 marked the ninth annual Lollapuzzoola event, hosted in New York City by Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer, and subtitled “It’s Hip to be Squared.”

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament set and tackle the six puzzles prepared for the event. And today, after waiting a few weeks out of respect for the constructors and solvers-from-home to avoid spoilers, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.


WARM-UP: Twinlets by Brian Cimmet

Before the tournament proper started, solvers tackled a pair of identical 9×9 grids, having to figure out which of the two clues given for each Across and Down coordinate applied to which grid. Intended as a tribute to the tournament’s ninth year, this was a strong, fun opener that used the dual grids to the fullest.

Several clues were repeated, allowing for some clever wordplay. For instance, both 5 Down clues were “Sweet”, cluing DELICIOUS and SCHMALTZY respectively.

Interesting grid entries included ZZ TOP, KANYE, and USER ID, and my favorite clue was either “Catcher behind a plate?” for BIB or “You’ve got two on your head and four in your head” for LOBES.

[Image courtesy of The King of Babylon on Tumblr.]

Puzzle 1: Celebrity Chefs by Mike Nothnagel

The tournament kicked off with this enjoyable 15×15 grid where food phrases that featured a last name used the first name instead (so you had CHICKEN A LA LARRY instead of CHICKEN A LA KING, for instance).

Nothnagel’s cluing was topnotch — I circled more favorite clues on this puzzle than any other in the tournament — reinvigorating some tired old standard entries with unexpected spins.

Interesting grid entries included THINKPAD, DRY EYE, TB TEST, and X-AXES, and my favorite clues (I’m limiting myself to two) were “Hefty alternative” for GLAD and “House-monitoring network?” for C-SPAN.

[Tournament directors and constructors
Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer]

Puzzle 2: Flipping Out by Patrick Blindauer

The next puzzle split a 16×15 grid down the middle into two 8×15 grids, each on its own page. The curious construction definitely slowed me down, even if the cluing and grid entries (including four different entries clued “FLIP OUT”) weren’t all that difficult.

This was easily the weirdest solve of the tournament. Amazing how one little change in presentation can throw you off.

Interesting grid entries included GI JOE, NO SIR, AMADEUS, and NADAL, and my favorite clues were “Writer Rice whose characters suck” for ANNE and the surprisingly intimate “Irish singer who my wife can’t stand” for ENYA.

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Puzzle 3: What Happened? by Doug Peterson

The difficulty of each puzzle’s theme began to ramp up here, as we had common words or phrases where the letter H had been replaced with either a T or a Y, and this was revealed with the highlighted entry HISTORY (literally spelling out “H IS T OR Y”).

Doug is a cleverboots, to be sure, and this 21×21 grid was a great test of wordplay and puzzly knowhow.

Interesting grid entries included HOLY GRAIL, ASIAGO, YUGI-OH, and ADORBS, and my favorite clues were “Leader of Ancient Troy?” for TAU and “Co. for surfers” for ISP.

[Image courtesy of Domestiphobia.net.]

Puzzle 4: Down in Front! by Evan Birnholz

We’re halfway through the tournament puzzles now, and the toughest puzzle in the set shows up, completing a one-two punch of really solid construction and crafty cluing. Six entries in this puzzle were missing letters, creating real words that were shorter than the actual words clued. (For instance, the clue “Person conjuring up spirits?” points to BARTENDER, but BENDER is all that fits into the grid. So each entry lost two or three letters after the first letter.)

This one had me skunked for a bit, I must admit, so it was immensely satisfying to crack the theme and complete the puzzle. Nicely done, Evan.

Interesting grid entries included HOBART, CARPS AT, ECOCAR, and CASSIO, and my favorite clues were “Places to see plays?” for ARENAS and “Delivery recipients” for PARENTS.

Puzzle 5: Quote Boxes by Francis Heaney

Heaney has five 2×2 boxes shaded with different shapes, and each of the four cells in those 2×2 boxes contains a word from a famous four-word movie quote.

For instance, in the upper left corner, there’s a shaded circle filling in a 2×2 box, and each of those four cells contains one of the words “snap,” “out,” “of,” and “it,’ which are incorporated into the across and down entries intersecting those individual boxes. (SNAP is part of OH SNAP and UNSNAP, OUT is part of STOUT and OUTRO, OF is part of POOF and OFFER, and IT is part of IT’S PAT and iTUNES. And SNAP OUT OF IT reads out on the line beside a shaded circle at the bottom of the page.)

This was a super-impressive grid that jammed a lot of entries into an 18×18 grid but never felt oversaturated, and it all flows nicely. This was the puzzle of the night for me.

Interesting grid entries included DELANO, ROBERT E LEE, HERE’S HOW, and HAVE-NOT, and my favorite clues were “Hillary’s claim to fame” for EVEREST and “Ball girl?” for DEB. (Though I must mention one more, simply for the confidence it betrays: “Garment a well-dressed man always wears and slovenly cretins do not (I may be biased here)” for TIE.)

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

Puzzle 6: Finals by Samuel A. Donaldson

This was the capper to a strong night of solving, and after Puzzle 5, it had a tough act to follow. There were two sets of clues: the Local for newcomers and the Express for established tournament puzzlers, and both had their stumbling blocks. Tight grid construction and some unexpected entries made for a pretty tough wrap-up puzzle, but one that challenged the solver rather than frustrating.

Interesting grid entries included MANSPLAIN, PUSS N BOOTS, SCAR-JO, TOOTSIES, and TESSERA, and my favorite clues from the Local set were “It covers all the bases” for TARP and “Present day visitor in France?” for PERE NOEL. My favorite clues from the Express set were “Sporty colleague” for POSH and “It can come between two friends” for OF A.


Overall, I thought this year’s Lollapuzzoola puzzles were very clever, and although some of the themes were tough to suss out, they provided a worthy challenge to solvers and plenty of outside-the-box thinking in both themes and cluing to keep your mind engaged.

There were so many great clues and all the personality and panache I’ve come to expect from the event and its constructors. Nine years in, and they’re only getting better.

I look forward to its return, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Lollapuzzoola challenge. (Also, I really hope I can attend next year, or Patti might kill me for missing the tournament AGAIN. *laughs*)


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