Every December I compile some observations on the past year of NYT puzzles. Normally, I include my Puzzle of the Year. This time, it’s a group of puzzles, and a special Person of the Year.
Let’s start with some of the puzzles that caught my eye.
Dan Schmiedeler’s Three Musketeers puzzle confused many solvers. The Editors of the Kansas City Star were so befuddled that they published an apology for incorrect clues, not realizing they had to substitute ALL for ONE and ONE for ALL.
A very strong contender for puzzle of the year was State Annexation by Charles M. Deber. That crossword is also notable for having a seemingly trivial but serious enough error to require a published correction.
Matt Ginsberg hid a BBC One television drama in this grid. Will Shortz included a note to indicate the presence of an Easter egg but it was still tricky to spot.
Jeff Chen really gets around. At least in this grid.
In-nuendos by Daniel A. Finan tripped people up but it’s a clever idea once you understand it.
I particularly like this Paula Gamache puzzle. The symmetry of the CROSS words is not pointed out anywhere but the attention to detail to pull it off was worth noting so I highlighted it on my site.
Another very strong puzzle-of-the-year candidate is this near-pangram by Patrick Berry. Every letter except the most common can be found in the grid.
Byron Walden’s State Quarters was so ambitious that experts from LitSoft (the Across Lite company) had to be called in to create the electronic version of the puzzle.
Xan Vongsathon’s Getting Around was the puzzle that generated the most confused email to me. People didn’t get it. Or they did and got to feel smug.
This special puzzle for math geeks included all 12 pentominoes hiding in the black squares.
The Yiddish answers in this grid are, appropriately, read right to left. We’re learning from the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project that reversal gimmicks were very popular in the Maleska era.
Ben Pall's very non-standard grid caused the most work for me in XWord Info in order to display it properly.
This year’s contest, Bypassing Security, may not have been as spectacular as last year’s but it was a fun challenge.
I liked Joe DiPietro’s Bywords for its clever visual wordplay.
Congratulations to the 4 women and 34 men who debuted as constructors this year. In order, they are Dan Schmiedeler, Michael Dewey, Francesco Trogu, Stu Ockman, Tom Pepper, James F. C. Burns, Dave Sarpola, Steven Riley, Gregory Philip Butler, Sean Dobbin, Michael David, Susan L. Stanislawski, Neville Fogarty, Guy Tabachnick, Jules P. Markey, Kevin Adamick, Kyle T. Dolan, Eric Williams, Derik Moore, John R. O'Brien, Caleb Emmons, Pawel Fludzinski, Jim Horne, Sam Ezersky, Rosemarie Dolan, Christopher Geach, Amanda Yesnowitz, Lou Borenstein, Kenneth Leeser, Barry Haldiman, Andrew Reynolds, John Guzzetta, Peter Koetters, Erik Agard, George Fitzgerald, Zhouqin Burnikel, Don Gagliardo, and Steve Savoy.
The most prolific constructor again this year was Patrick Berry whose 15 new puzzles brings his lifetime total to 169 NYT crosswords. One I especially liked was this Clintonian parsing of what the word IT means. Peter A. Collins had an even dozen, including this cute football grid, and Joe Krozel and Barry C. Silk were close behind with 11 each. Long-time constructors we didn’t see all year include two super-solvers: Trip Payne and Tyler Hinman.
I can’t help it. I have a crossword database so I keep track of these things. Andrea Carla Michaels had a Monday pangram for the second year in a row. A record four grids had unchecked squares. Five, if you count this monstrous one by Ian Livengood. These three grids have no three-letter answers. Stu Ockman had the most eggs ever in one grid. An amazing 22 grids this year weren’t square. Seven puzzles were what I call nonlinear – answers go backwards or turn corners or do other odd tricks.
Constructors were hungry this year. The most popular answer word was ATE with EAT tied for second. Nearly 3,000 new words entered the database including ELIMANNING, OBAMACARE, and the recent Microsoft acquisition SKYPE, each of which has already been reused twice. Steve Riley blew away the old record for most Os in a grid.
It’s time to talk about Joe
And then, on December 29, the nearly unthinkable happened. The world’s first published quintuple stack appeared, created by Joe Krozel.
Every constructor tries to be creative. Everyone wants to push the limits. Joe does it like nobody else. Take a look at this collection of wacky grids. Like many pioneers, he’s largely unappreciated. He gets no love from the bloggers and many solvers dismiss his prowess as cheap tricks. He’s just showing off. (Guess what. That crossword I built with Jeff Chen? I was showing off.) Those asymmetric grids are cheating! (A concept, I confess, I just don’t understand.) He breaks all the rules. (That’s a bad thing? Besides, I have news. Crosswords are like jazz. There are no rules, only what editors think will delight.)
My favorite Joe Krozel puzzle this year was a rule breaker of a different sort. You’ve heard the one about I before E except after C, right? Not always. Joe fit in eight counter-examples with perfect symmetry.
Puzzles of the Year
I usually name a puzzle of the year but this time, like Joe, I’m cheating. It doesn’t happen every week but once again this year, my favorite solving experiences were often in the NYT Variety Puzzles. I love the Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon acrostics, and you get one every fortnight! You can try the most recent one here, even if you don’t have an XWord Info membership. It's a good one.
I’m not sure why the Cryptic puzzles in particular aren’t more popular. They’re full of the kinds of clues bloggers often comment on. Diagramless puzzles combine wordplay with logic in a way I find especially satisfying.
Why don’t they get the same attention as the daily puzzles when they’re often more fun? I suspect it has something to do with not being conducive to speed solving, but I’m not confident that theory is valid.
Seriously, give these a chance. If you have a NYT subscription, you already have access to hundreds of them. This page on XWord Info lists them in a nicely organized way. Click on the Across Lite links, print a few out, and solve them on paper. Acrostics are listed here or dig around the NYT archives if you don’t have an XWord Info membership.
Person of the Year
Crosswords don’t have a long history but it’s mostly a forgotten one. What’s more ephemeral than a puzzle printed on cheap newsprint that you solve once and then throw away? As with many art forms, the genius and effort and creativity are noticed later, after much of the work is lost.
Trying to pull together new electronic versions of all the New York Times crosswords going back to their beginning in 1942 would be completely insane. Who would be crazy enough to even attempt such a thing, knowing the data are incredibly hard to retrieve, the fidelity of the information you get is often questionable, and the vastness of the project would require organizing an army of crossword-savvy volunteers? The answer is crossword constructor and historian David Steinberg, my Person of the Year.
I’ve been a fan and supporter of The Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project since it started but I thought their likelihood of success, at least in my lifetime, was small. And yet, as of today, they’re about 38% of the way to their goal. Awesome.
David has created crosswords for several publications, he’s now the crossword editor at The Orange County Register, he writes a blog, oh, and he just turned 16. It’s possible he has a bright future.
The original version of this post said that, along with his new record for fewest blocks and his ground-breaking quintuple stack, Joe Krozel also broke the record for fewest words. In fact, he tied that record of 52 set in 2005 by Frank Longo.
The JimHBlog regrets the error.