Each December I take a look back at the most memorable NYT crosswords of the previous 12 months and name my Puzzle and Person of the Year. Crosswords, unlike novels and short stories, are journeys we actively participate in, so here’s my annual travelogue. As usual we’ll start with a few puzzles that caught my eye.
Note: XWord Info links work from any blog including this one, even if you don’t have a subscription.
Elizabeth C. Gorski provided a treat for math geeks everywhere with this puzzle that celebrates magic squares.
Kevan Choset's clever WH__L OF FORTUN_ grid required us to BUY AN E in order to finish the puzzle.
Milo Beckman implored us to MIND THE GAP in this clever grid.
This themeless from David Quarfoot introduced JESUSFISH, at 1 Across no less, but more importantly marked the 8,000th NYT puzzle edited by Will Shortz, including 1,000 Variety puzzles. That’s a remarkable accomplishment. Congratulations, Mr. Shortz!
I really enjoyed this inquisitive collaboration between Barry Franklin and Sara Kaplan.
Raymond C. Young became the first constructor to squeeze a quadruple pangram into a standard 15x15 grid.
Corey Rubin’s LARGE PRINT grid caused a lot of extra work for software programmers.
Derek Bowman became the first constructor to triple-stack 16s.
Brendan Emmett Quigley and Elizabeth Donovan had us scribble outside the box in this puzzle that was easier for Canadians because they’re more likely to know Pierre Trudeau’s middle name.
This grid by David Levinson Wilk had an innovative use of circles in the grid. Click to read my note.
This color-mixing puzzle by Elizabeth C. Gorski was one of my favorites. It was great fun animating the mix of red and blue, and then seeing the Color Purple emerge on its own.
A little later, I got to animate this grid by Mel Rosen to demonstrate the two equally-valid central answers.
When this puzzle was published on June 26, the two co-constructors were aged 16 and 99 – a difference of 83 years. Thanks to David Steinberg’s Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, we can now see far more of Bernice Gordon’s contributions to crosswords.
Overlapping I and S or I and C is a neat visual gimmick I’ve never seen before. I’m not sure it was completely successful but the idea is cool.
Speaking of unique, I’ve never seen anything like Patrick Blindauer’s DOUBLE FEATURE grid before either.
Sarah Keller doesn’t get the press that some of the flashier constructors do, but this year she quietly accumulated her 50th published NYT puzzle. She’s a solid puzzle maker.
Jeff Chen’s phrases that describe letters in words concept was clever. I particularly recall feeling smug when I sussed out this theme.
Ian Livengood won the first ever XWord Info POW award, marking the date that Jeff Chen truly took over XWord Info and made it his own.
John Farmer continued his string of innovative grid ideas with his Persons of Note theme. It’s a rebus puzzle where numbers in the Down answers have to be interpreted as the names of people on the corresponding American banknotes for the Across answers.
Damon Gulczynski created the fifth Shortz-era Schrödinger puzzle. While perhaps not as memorable as some of its quantum predecessors, it’s still a remarkable accomplishment.
Another high-concept idea came from famous puzzle maker Mike Selinker in this year’s contest puzzle, Letterboxes. Letter O’s had to be interpreted as braille bumps to spell the secret phrase.
Kevin Christian crammed a huge amount of theme entries into this tribute to the movie E. T.
Tom Pepper and Victor Barocas hid the numbers on their clock face. Solvers had to supply them to make the entries around the outside border make sense.
This themeless from Byron Walden was one of my most satisfying solves of the year.
Toe Tags is an awesome name for what turned out to be a terrific puzzle.
Jeff Chen said constructing Taken to Task was harder than pushing a boulder up a hill. After all that work, he colored all the nicely symmetric theme entries so you’d be sure to appreciate them.
Jean O’Conor fit a PESTO recipe into a 15x15 grid. Delightful!
I really like this visual GAS GAUGE grid from Peter A. Collins. Note the two unchecked squares, E and F for Empty and Full, on opposite sides of the ninth row.
BACK IN BLACK was a nifty trick that required reinterpreting four squares we usually don’t have to write in.
Patrick Berry casually demonstrated his complete mastery of crosswords once again with Two Outs. Each theme clue described two answers, with and without two circled letters.
A different subtraction idea came from David Steinberg with his ERASE RS puzzle.
Jeff Chen struck again with A Cut Above the Rest. You had to color in the theme squares at the top to make sense of the vertical theme answers below.
Heavy bars separating answer words are common in some other venues but George Barany and Michael Shteyman introduced them to NYT daily puzzles this year. Across Lite can’t handle grids like this so XWord Info provided a web-based solver page for online solvers who wanted to try the puzzle as intended. That puzzle also has another of my favorite clues of 2013: “Two- or four-seater, maybe”.
Unusual grids and words
Joe Krozel constructed the puzzle with the fewest blocks this year, as well as the one with the most. I particularly like the latter. He also broke the record for lowest word count, albeit by using lots of blocks.
Andrea Carla Michaels had a Monday pangram for the third year in a row, this time co-written with Michael Blake.
Looking at the Stacks page on XWord Info, there were two grids this year with double quad-stacks, both by Martin Ashwood-Smith. There were four grids with single quad stacks, all by Martin Ashwood-Smith. I have no idea how he does it but I enjoy tackling these huge seas of white.
Words introduced this year included CRYPTOZOOLOGIST, PAUL RYAN, FRENEMY, COSMO GIRL, HUNGRY HUNGRY HIPPOS, BACKHANDED COMPLIMENTS, MANUAL TRANSMISSION, FACEBOOK STALKING, CRONYISM, SUCKS TO BE YOU, POGO STICK, BOOMERANG EFFECT, SODIUM PENTOTHAL, and these three all from the same puzzle: ASHKENAZI, CALVIN AND HOBBES, and DJANGO UNCHAINED.
Congratulations to the 6 women and 31 men who made their NYT debut in 2013. In order, they are Bruce Haight, Jim Peredo, David Ben-Merre, Jaime Hutchison, Bruce Sutphin, J. R. Leopold, Daniel Landman, Adam Prince, Michael Wiesenberg, Steve Blais, Peter Broda, Severin T. Nelson, John Lieb, Elizabeth Donovan, Jean O'Conor, Kevin Christian, Mark Bickham, Richard F. Mausser, Robert Seminara, Tracy Bennett, H. David Goering, Jacob McDermott, Sue Keefer, Mangesh Ghogre, long-time puzzle maker Mike Selinker, Evan Birnholz, Amy Johnson, Jason Flinn, D. Scott Nichols, Andy Kravis, Alan Derkazarian, Mike Doran, Tom McCoy, David Woolf, Loren Muse Smith, Greg Johnson, and Jacob Stulberg.
The most prolific constructors again this year were Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon who, as usual, had an Acrostic published every fortnight, along with two Cryptics. Fred Piscop was the Variety runner-up with four Diagramless puzzles. Looking at daily puzzles, David Steinberg led with 15. Others in double digits were Ian Livengood with 12, Patrick Berry with 11, and Elizabeth C. Gorski, Joel Fagliano, and Jeff Chen with 10.
Long time constructors who dropped off the NYT grid in 2013 include Nancy Salomon, Robert H. Wolfe, Mark Diehl, Mike Nothnagel, Nancy Kavanaugh, Tony Orbach, and Natan Last.
Before I get to the awards, a few personal observations.
My post earlier this month on the state of crossword blogging struck a note with many readers. It generated about 30 insightful comments before the open comment period ended, and it also inspired more private correspondence than anything else I’ve ever written. Passionate mail flooded my inbox, some agreeing with me and some not. I’ve encouraged the best writers on all sides to consider publishing their thoughts. I don’t know if any will. Writing a daily blog is incredibly hard work. NYT crosswords are lucky to have so many points of view being expressed every day.
I may have mentioned this already but I have to once again thank Jeff Chen for taking over XWord Info. He not only kept it alive, he turned it into a must-visit site for crossword enthusiasts with his daily commentary.
Also, thank you to the NYT Puzzle Staff who continue to go out of their way to help both XWord Info and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project. None of this would be possible without ongoing help from Will Shortz, Ellen Ripstein, Deb Amlen, and the rest.
Ok, on to the awards!
Puzzle of the Year
This choice is often hard for me but this year, there’s one puzzle that clearly stands out. It’s the one that gave me the most pure Aha! joy when I solved it, the one I keep coming back to, the one I tell all my friends about. It’s more than a puzzle; it’s a magic trick published, appropriately, on Halloween.
The constructor David Kwong is a professional magician whose signature puzzle performance trick is mind blowing.
By the way, I’m not sure how many people noticed this but Mr. Kwong’s other puzzle this year included a reference to his amazing trick.
Constructor of the Year
Her ten puzzles include the fantastic Magic Squares, the chocolate-themed My Treat, the beautifully clever Color Purple, the POOR to RICH word ladder for the lucky INSTANT WINNER, the ambitious Edginess (similar themes have been tried before but never on a big Sunday grid), her Lincoln Highway centennial tribute, the beautifully executed Alexander Pope quote, and a challenging themeless that introduced HARAJUKU GIRLS.
Even better, there were a couple of connect-the-dots puzzles, and they’re both lovely. In December we got to draw an angel in Good One! Note how the slight asymmetry gives an impression of fluttering motion in the wings. I like Fast One from June even more. There’s plenty of theme action and the final drawing is a thing of beauty. It might be the most successful connect-the-dots puzzle ever.
If you’re a fan too, there are plenty more Elizabeth Gorski NYT puzzles available for NYT Premium Puzzle subscribers to download in Across Lite format here. Click the G box and scroll down until you see her name.
Even better, check out her blog Crossword Nation where you can get a weekly subscription to brand new crosswords sent by email.