Every year I compile some observations about NYT puzzles from the past 12 months. As usual, I'll pick a Puzzle and Constructor of the Year, but not as usual, I'll end with some more wide-ranging general thoughts.
Note that all XWord Info links in blogs, including this one, bypass access checks so you can view all the pages I mention here whether or not you have an XWord Info account.
I begin each year with a list of puzzles that caught my eye.
Crossword people like all kinds of puzzles and this chopped-up grid by Alan Derkazarian was a trip down memory lane for anyone who ever played Clue.
Speaking of strange grids, Patrick Berry gave us one of the weirder looking ones I've seen in this outstanding crossword.
I was very taken with Lynn Lempel's ONE AND ALL grid.
If you're old enough to remember Sgt. Pepper, the phrase "It was 50 years ago today" strikes a chord, and to play that chord, you need a guitar. Charles Deber provides one in this Beatles tribute.
Ruth Margolin added IST to common phrases in a way that made me laugh, and we haven't heard from her since that NYT debut.
Bruce Haight and Peter A. Collins told us to go fly a kite.
I really liked this parking lot full of cars from Liz Gorski. Jeff Chen and I had a big discussion about this puzzle which you can read about by clicking through and then expanding Jeff's notes. To most constructors, circles just highlight squares. To Liz, they're visual elements to exploit, in this case turning into wheels. She transformed them into bubbles back in 2009.
David Steinberg gave us a zesty grid shaped like a Z, and full of Zs.
Anna Schechtman constructed an Ode to the Octothorpe which absolutely delighted me. Plus, TWITTERHASHTAG is awesome.
This was a banner year for Acrostics with several I loved. Here's one to try if you're not caught up.
Patrick Berry came up with an original gimmick in this standout strikeout puzzle.
In his comments here, Jeff Chen tries to quantify what makes Patrick Berry's puzzles so good.
Paula Gamache wrote my favorite diagramless of the year. I know, I know, you're too busy speed-solving to work these, but you really ought to try them. Worst case, open them up in Across Lite and solve them as regular crosswords.
Another great Aha! appeared shortly after. Mr. Polin was back, this time with a themed Saturday puzzle full of clues, none of which many any sense. This came close to being my Puzzle of the Year.
One of the best puzzles of September, this All-Encompassing crossword, didn't even get a Puzzle of the Week award. The lesson here is clear. If you want a POW, never ever collaborate with Jeff Chen. Those crosswords never win. This reduces the pool significantly because Jeff is becoming a big-time collaborator. Nearly half of his 35 NYT puzzles required help from someone else.
I like puns, so Celebrity Spoonerisms by Tony Orbach and Patrick Blindauer was a big winner for me.
Joe Krozel continues to amaze me. That man innovates in surprising new ways every time out. In this puzzle, the answer to 20 Down is spelled out in Morse Code. By reading the black squares! In a grid that still has the usual rotational crossword symmetry. Yikes. I loved his Fill-in-the-Blanks puzzle later in the year too.
We got a fun "uniclue" puzzle from Joel Fagliano. No more convenient Across and Down lists.
Patrick Blindauer created this year's contest, a six-part meta puzzle starting here. It was very satisfying when it all came together.
Trip Payne helped us kill an extra Daylight Savings Time hour with this particularly tough 17x17 crossword.
I like rhymes even more than puns. Surround Sound is an awesome title too.
Kevin G. Der and Ian Livengood combined to create this stellar themeless puzzle. As a bonus treat, Will Shortz chose this puzzle to do a clue-by-clue explanation of how he edits a crossword. If you ever want a submit a puzzle to the Times, this is worth careful reading.
There were three single-quad-stack puzzles and three double-quads (thumbs) in 2014, all by Martin Ashwood-Smith. Two of the six were collaborations.
We got a new record for most Schrödinger puzzles in one year with three. Is it a thing now, or just a fad?
Caleb Emmons gets the record for shortest answer word in my database. The clue for 65-Across in this puzzle is "___-square". The answer is T.
Congratulations to the 5 women and 22 men who made their NYT debut in 2014. In order, they are Andrew Chaikin, Jared Banta, Michael Hawkins, Jeff Stillman, Dick Shlakman, Matthew E. Paronto, Ruth B. Margolin, Douglas Taillon, John E. Bennett, Mary Lou Guizzo, Jim Modney, Brandon Hensley, Alex Bajcz, Dan Margolis, Kameron Austin Collins, Heather Valadez, Luke Vaughn, Matt Fuchs, Howard Barkin, David Phillips, Katie Livengood, Sam Buchbinder, Gerry Wildenberg, Eric Sydney Phillips, Evans Clinchy, Kacey Walker and Dennis Ryall.
Puzzle and Constructor of the Year
At a time when so much new talent is coming into the world of crosswords and young indie constructors are becoming rock stars (well, within certain circles) I find myself drawn to the people who surprise and delight me with new voices. Constructor of the Year Tom McCoy is a name I can't wait to see on more bylines and his Colorful Characters is my Puzzle of the Year. I like all kinds of puzzles and when crosswords expand to find new ways to twist their logic, I'm usually excited. This one delighted me from beginning to end.
I didn't think until after I settled on my choice that maybe I just like colors. My very first Puzzle of the Year went to Francis Heaney's ingenious Flag Day crossword.
This is the last one of these annual posts I'm going to do so here are some more wide-ranging opinions you can argue about.
The best constructor currently working: I know the general consensus is that nobody tops Patrick Berry, but remember, this is always a subjective question. There is no algorithm that can definitively answer such a question. The fact that I always look forward to seeing Paula Gamache or Joe Krozel in a byline represents my own personal opinions. The fact that Elizabeth Gorski and I have similar musical interests colors my solving experience. It's hard for me to separate the fact that I like Jeff Chen from the fact that I enjoy his puzzles. Still, I'll take the dangerous step of actually naming the constructor I consider to be the best. It's Patrick Berry.
My favorite constructor of all time: XWord Info came into being largely because I started noticing that many of my favorite crosswords were all written by the same person, the great Manny Nosowsky. Or, here's an even better link: go to my favorite page on XWord Info, Across Lite files sorted by constructor, click N, scroll down to Manny's name, and pick a few at random to solve.
My favorite crossword puzzle of all time: When Patrick Berry's 2011 "Cross Word" Contest wrapped up, I called it my favorite ever, and I haven't changed my mind since.
The most amazing constructor I know nothing about: At XWord Info, we try to carefully track stats by constructor. This is not so simple. Constructor names get represented in different ways, and sometimes they change completely, but we do our best. We also do our best to combine stats to include Shortz Era, pre-Shortz, and Variety puzzles. Putting all that together, we created the Baseball Cards -- Most prolific constructors page. So who are the most prolific NYT constructors? Manny Nosowsky is at the top, right? Well, no. Remember Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon crank out an acrostic every fortnight on top of their other occasional contributions, so they're tied for number one. Nobody else is close.
Including pre-Shortz puzzles drops Manny to number 4 behind William Lutwiniak. I've found no information at all about Mr. Lutwiniak but he was a crossword construction monster. Right now, I have his count at 295, well ahead of Manny's 254, but the true answer is surely much higher. I only have pre-Shortz data back to 1966 (more is coming!) so it drops off during Lutwiniak's prime. Plus, most puzzles from 1966 to 1973 are by constructor Unknown. Surely some, and probably many of these are by him.
Here's something we do know about him. He loved pangrams. I realize pangrams are currently unfashionable in some circles but Lutwiniak was a pangram master. Take a look at this chart. He gets credit for 70 pangrams, beat out only by, you got it, constructor Unknown. I'm sure we can guess the authorship of most of those.
Keep in touch
I will have some future observations about the Business of Crosswords, and that ties into another upcoming post you already know about if you were an early subscriber to the XWord Info mailing list. (Yes, we have a mailing list, it's free, we promise no spam.) Jeff Chen who now runs XWord Info has lots of ideas about how we can help puzzle makers create crosswords, and maybe even help them make more money. I know, I know, you do it for the sake of the art.