Every December I look back on the year of NYT puzzles, highlight some that caught my eye, and pick my Puzzle of the Year. There’s little suspense for the Outstanding Achievement of 2011 but read on anyway. There is much to celebrate this year.
As usual, I start with a few statistical observations. The biggest is that 2011 was not particularly a year of groundbreaking technical accomplishments. Joe Krozel had the least inky grid of the year with 24 blocks but that’s six more than his record set just last year. Seven puzzles had 25 blocks, including two by Patrick Berry. Mr. Krozel did manage to blow through the old record for most blocks in a 15x grid with 56. Julian Lim had the lowest word count (58) but again, well off the record. Only one grid managed a Scrabble Average over 2.0. For the second year in a row, we had two puzzles with two quad stacks of 15-letter answer words but no new stacking arrangements appeared.
Records were broken for most C’s and most R’s in a 15x grid, and records were tied for most M’s, P’s, and V’s. I call this one the official record for most T’s. There are 51 T’s in that grid, every answer contains a T, and every clue starts with a T.
Grid records may not be falling but this has been a strong year for grid creativity. David J. Kahn gave us our first schizophrenic puzzle in nearly five years. Read the JNote on this crazy grid by Jeff Chen. Jonah Kagan has a sophisticated math/science theme. Jeremy Newton and Tony Orbach had us traveling around the grid by opening doors we had to find ourselves, and this Yin/Yang grid is simply gorgeous.
Each group of three consecutive black squares formed a BAR in this puzzle and then Mr. Kahn followed up with his own BAR hopping theme. Jeremy Newton included a familiar melody from Beethoven. Brendan Emmett Quigley tipped us off about his impending fatherhood. Within hours of the announcement of the death of Steve Jobs, Kevin G. Der created this tribute puzzle.
My favorite NYT crossword tradition is the year-end Elizabeth C. Gorski visual theme puzzle. If it weren’t for the diabolical genius of the eventual winner, this would have been my puzzle of the year.
After going a bit out of fashion last year, ERA regained its spot as the most popular answer of 2011. TEN was, surprisingly, in the top three. New words introduced this year include BLOODLUST, ELENAKAGAN, USUALSUSPECTS, GROUNDEDFORLIFE, SIDVICIOUS, HANNIBALLECTER, BLINGBLING, MEH, NAPOLEONCOMPLEX, ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM, GETAROOM, BATGIRL, ACMECORPORATION, CHEFBOYARDEE and about 3,000 more. Oh yeah, including UPTHEWAZOO. Surprising debuts include not just MOLTENCHOCOLATE but plain old CHOCOLATE too.
New constructors, and a few gone missing
Congratulations to the 38 constructors who debuted this year. In order, they are David Hanson, James Tuttle, Chris A. McGlothlin, Jessica A. Hui, Victor Barocas, Steve Salitan, Albert R. Picallo, Robyn Weintraub, Erik Wennstrom, E. J. Masicampo, Gareth Bain, Michael Farabaugh, Nina Rulon-Miller, Jeff Dubner, Alex Vratsanos, Angela Olson Halsted, David Steinberg, Kelsey Boes, Milo Beckman, Joseph Samulak, Tom Baring, Paul Johnson, Johanna Fenimore, Caleb Rasmussen, Ellen Leuschner, Kurt Mueller, Janie Smulyan, Parker Lewis, Dana Delany, Kay Anderson, David Gray, Ben Fish, Dan Feyer, Barry Franklin, Sara Kaplan, Rolf Hamburger, Timothy Polin, and Louis Zulli.
A few constructors fell off the radar in 2011. The great Manny Nosowsky may well have published his last NYT crossword. Even so, his lifetime Shortz-era total of 246 puzzles including 29 Sundays is not going to be eclipsed any time soon. The other heavy hitter missing from the 2011 list is the frequent mentor Nancy Salomon. Richard Silvestri had at least one puzzle every year from 1993 but not this year. Sarah Keller had an 11-year streak end and one of the most creative constructors, Karen M. Tracey, was absent in 2011 as well. Beloved bloggers and podcasters Brian Cimmet and Ryan Hecht hung up their microphones and shut down their website.
The most prolific constructors were, as usual, Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon who had an acrostic published every second week plus three cryptics. Ignoring variety puzzles, the clear winner was Patrick Berry with 19, including six in a row. The only others in double digits are Peter A. Collins with 12 and Ian Livengood with 11.
The rise of conservatism
Why do grids seem less ambitious this year? It could be just coincidence or merely the pendulum swinging back. It could also be that loud voices in the blogosphere inveighing against gimmick puzzles are changing the trend. The respected puzzle critic Amy Reynaldo often zeroes in on the least lively fill, marking down any grids with too many overused, obscure, or crosswordy answers. I mean this literally – she grades each puzzle. Extreme grids or complex themes almost always mean an above average level of junk in the fill.
Personally, I can tolerate all kinds of junk fill in the service of a delightful theme but mine seems to be a minority view. Some of my favorite puzzles are built around the craziest gimmicks; connect the dots, fold the paper, constrain the available letters or use them all, stack the 15s, shade the circles, reorder words in the clues – it’s all good. My hope is that Will Shortz continues to encourage innovation. We need both the crossword Brahms continuing to polish the classical forms and the crossword Stravinsky breaking all the rules and upsetting the critics and allowing a little (or even a lot of) dissonance along the way.
The Puzzle of the Year
The counter-argument, of course, is that it’s possible to both be highly creative, even gimmicky, and still be smooth. The Patrick Berry “Cross” Word Contest is Exhibit A. Of course it’s my Puzzle of the Year, but even Mr. Berry had to resort to EEL, ITAL, LAIC, ENNUI, ASTI, ASEA, ARE, ORR, ETTA, TAR, EMTS, IDI, EGAD, and so on to pull off his masterpiece.
Let me be absolutely clear about my level of enthusiasm for this six-day challenge. It’s the best word puzzle I have ever done. If somehow you missed it, don’t worry, I haven’t and won’t give away anything important.
If you have a NYT puzzle subscription, go to this page to download the set. You want to print these out so either download the PDFs or download the Across Lite files and then print them. One puzzle, the Friday, is only available as a PDF (although I have a proof-of-concept web-based solving page that sort of works.)
If you don’t have an NYT puzzle subscription, these puzzles alone are worth signing up for it and then you’ll get access to eight new puzzles a week plus the archives going back to 1996.
What makes this set of puzzles so good? Remember, it’s a “Cross” word contest. Each of the first five puzzles brilliantly introduces a variation on the “Cross” theme. On their own, they are outstanding puzzles. By the time you solve number six and realize how everything fits together, check your jaw. If it hasn’t dropped, you haven’t yet figured out all the levels.