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VIII. Theme Answers
The New York Times crossword puzzle always contains a theme of some sort in the Monday through Wednesday editions, almost always on Thursdays, rarely on Fridays, and almost never on Saturdays. The larger (21 by 21 versus 15 by 15) Sunday puzzle has not only a theme but a title that will always suggest that theme. You should always pay attention to the theme. In fact, you can't really say you've solved the puzzle till you've identified the theme or decided there isn't one. The rest of this page consists of examples of themes.
(In addition, there are a few examples of tours de force sprinkled in, just so you can see how hard some constructors try. It's these puzzles that you more casual solvers should admire more.)
The theme is George Washington, and the theme answers are CHERRY (cherry tree), WOODEN (wooden teeth), DELAWARE (Delaware River), VIRGINIA (home state), FATHER (of our country), and DOLLEY (Madison, his seamstress).
Some theme answers are quips and quotations. The quips can be made up by the author of the puzzle or they can be quotes from well-known people, and they purport to be amusing or insightful. The various chunks of the answer snake through the puzzle, sometimes in diagonally symmetrical blocks and sometimes not, sometimes only in the Across answers and sometimes not.
Such quips and quotations usually make the puzzle more difficult to play, because you get only the one clue for what can be several dozen answer cells. The first clue will read something like "First part of quip," the next clues will read "Quip: Continued," and the last clue will read "Last part of quip."
Here's an answer from a Sunday puzzle: "If I had a nickel for every time I put a dollar in the bank I'd have 1/20 what I have now."
Now, to be honest with you, I don't really get what this particular one means, but the point is that you are given only one clue for what turns out to be, in this case, five separate answers occupying 68 cells. (And yes, the author did require the player to figure out that two of the answers used the numeral 1, that two of the answers used the SLASH, that two of the answers used the numeral 2, and that two of the answers used the numeral 0.)
Arguably the best and certainly one of the most controversial NYT crossword puzzles appeared on Tuesday, November 5th, 1996, which was the day of the last U.S. presidential election that was not decided by the Supreme Court. This puzzle is so special it requires you to take a detour to learn more about it. Then come back here.
The theme of Isabel Walcott's NYT masterpiece of May 10, 1997, was so devious that the puzzle needed a special notation: "The answer to 53-Across contains a hint to entering the answers to 20-, 23-, 38-, 48-, and 53-Across itself."
Here's all you need to figure it out. (Don't scroll down just yet. Look at the answers for a sec.)
Give up? OK, here's the deal. The theme, as stated at 53-Across, is the phrase "No ifs ands or buts."
Note also that the three answers that include exactly two of the three special words spread them out with perfect symmetry, two of each.
This is one of the cleverest themes I can remember.
Get it? If you don't, take a moment to look it over for a while to see what the theme might be, because it's both good and better.
Even if you figured out that every answer consists of the sounds of the names of the individual letters (e.g., the sound of the letter B is "bee," the sound of the letter F is "eff," and so on), this puzzle is better than that. Each answer is rendered twice, once in plain English and again using only letters.
This is brilliant primarily because of the intricate cleverness of the clues and answers but also because the constructor managed to fit them into the many strictures of a crossword grid.
In case you don't want to think as hard as I did, I'll tell you the missing clues should be Grant, Ford and Pierce.
Here's an extra good example of a theme, by Manny Nosowsky. Manny can be counted on to deliver at least 6.66% more than expected. This ran on September 6, 1999, a mere Monday, which means the clues and answers were particularly easy.
The nature of this puzzle is such that it cannot be published as a regular crossword in the space available in regular newspapers, which is too bad, because it exemplifies the fierce nature of crossword constructors to bring us more, to do better, to get wild.
I declare this is the finest example of a fill-in-the-blank puzzle ever written since November 19, 1863.
Below is the crossword grid. As you can see, it is a bit different.
First, you should go to Patrick Merrell's blog HERE and find and download the "Special Delivery" puzzle, then print it out and play it. Even if you're a complete novice to crosswords, just keep banging away till you figure out the deal, at which point you'll realize you won't be needing the answer grid.
Update of March 10, 2011: You can now also go to Merrell's blog about this puzzle HERE.
Those of you familiar with acrostics might figure out the deal a bit earlier. This is the quintessential melding of a crossword and an acrostic, perfectly executed.
Second, read the author's explanation from his blog of how he created the puzzle.
July 30, 2007 -- A few notes about the construction of "Special Delivery."
Third, now that you've played this puzzle -- you have, haven't you? -- try to imagine how difficult it must have been to construct.
Once he chose a quote, the author had only those exact 143 letters to work into the answer grid. He couldn't trade a useless Q for a handy L or swap a K for an S. He had that exact list of letters, and somehow they had to be fit into a crossword grid. At first it would seem easy, with all those letters to choose from for the first several answers, but in pretty short order you're going to run out of the letters you want. A few answers later you're going to realize that you've got a bunch of unpopular letters you absolutely have to cram into place in place of the letters you really want to use.
It's tough enough to create a half-decent crossword when you have all the letters of the alphabet available for use anywhere, but for a constructor to be able to create a rules-compliant 13 X 13 crossword that uses only a fixed set of 143 letters is so difficult that I wonder whether it has ever been done before.
But it's even harder than that, because 27 of those letters were used up by the three symmetrically placed theme answers, including one that's a full 13 letters in length. The way it is all so gently forced to fit together continues to gast my flabber, and it should yours too.
The author of "Special Delivery" joins the the author of the Election Day crossword in my personal pantheon of crossword puzzledom, which now consists of two.
Here are two similar ones from Manny Nosowsky. In the February 16, 1996, puzzle immediately below the theme is simply the letter "Q." Getting this to work with even a commonly used letter such as "E" or "S" would be tough enough, but getting it to work with such an uncommonly used letter as "Q" is remarkable, especially considering that most "Q's" have to be followed by a "U." Notice how the grid is designed with a nine-cell diagonal of darks so the Qs can always start the answers. Again, I recommend you try writing such a puzzle if you want to appreciate what an accomplishment this particular one was.
Torment; Some socials; Golfers' needs; Musical notes; Rib; Sri Lankan exports; Flirt; Informal tops; Plumbing joints; Angers, with "off"; Certain crosses; Timeout signs.
Don't scroll down till you've looked at the clues to figure out the Theme.
It is extraordinary that such a puzzle could be constructed.
Forty-four answers in the grid above start or end with the letter "T." When you add in the 12 answers that form the perimeter, that's an astonishing total of 56 theme answers out of a total of 74.
Assuming charitably that the typical puzzle contains as many as four theme answers and that the average number of answers is as few as 68, that means this grid contains twelve times more theme answers than average, which I think might be some kind of record.
As you can imagine, if you can catch on to this theme early, you can fill in a lot of cells without even looking at the clues. In this particular case, if you identify the theme after the first two clues, you can proceed to fill in another 40 letters, which I think also might be some kind of record.
Identifying the theme in a themed puzzle is satisfying and usually helpful. The sooner you can do it the better, because once you've identified the theme you've got a major leg up on figuring out the other theme answers. If before you even look at the clues you can identify the theme answers' strings of cells in the empty grid -- and you usually can because they're almost always the longest ones and they're almost always symmetrically placed -- you should strive to answer the clues that intersect one or two of them.
*I do have a complaint or two about how the first clue was punctuated. First, I think there should have been a comma after "yells." Second, I think "duck" should have been capitalized. And I also figure if someone is yelling a word, it doesn't need an exclamation point.
Rebus crossword. For example, it might be that several individual cells are to be filled in with your best rendering of an eyeball, which represents the letters E-Y-E, and all those answers will contain those letters, such as GREYEST, CHEYENNE, and MONKEYED, which would show up in the answer grid as GR¤ST, CH¤NNE, and MONK¤D. This is called a rebus puzzle, and the sooner you catch on to this rarely used convention the easier the puzzle will go.
Here's a good example of a visually striking specialty theme, by Bill Zais and Nancy Salomon, from the December 1, 1999, New York Times.
Elizabeth C. Gorski invariably entertains, and her Sunday, August 17, 2003, puzzle is a fine example. The title is "All Keyed Up," and the theme is a telephone keypad. Below are the twelve relevant answers in context.
The clue for 3-Down is "Jungle swinger." The clue for 7-Down is "With 11-Down, 3-Down's last words?"
If you think about it you'll realize that by imposing such a grid on himself the constructors made their jobs a lot more difficult. We can compare how each handled the task.
The one on the left was done by Patrick Merrell, whose NYT crosswords never fail to excel. It ran in the NYT on August 30, 2002, a Friday. As you can see (try squinting your eyes), there are five symmetrically placed plus signs as well as two symmetrically placed minus signs. Merrell took full advantage of this grid by including four special Across theme answers, the two at the very top and the two at the very bottom.
The one on the right, from six days earlier (a NYT Saturday), is somewhat less inspired, and it has no theme to save it. Although the grid is pretty compared to most, filling that grid seems to have gotten the better of the constructor. Here the clues and answers are just a bit less fresh and approachable than is usual for NYT crosswords, and a few are worthy of comment.
40-Down's clue is "Suez Canal promoter," and the answer is LESSEPS. Not exactly a household name, but not all that tough to get if you have the proper references.
But the "P" of that 40-Down intersects with a weak and obscure answer. 53-Across's clue is "Surpass," and the answer is OVERTOP. Now, I admit I don't know whether "overtop" is a verb, but I don't care because I don't plan to use it. Besides, I think more fun could have been had with the same letters broken up into the two-word answer "OVERT OP." But then, I am not a crossword constructor.
Along those same lines, with regard to the diagonally opposite corner I have to mention the answer to 1-Across. The clue is "Takes up the challenge," and the answer is HAS AT IT. But those seven letters could be broken up into words in a more interesting way, for which a clue might be "Sucks."
The theme clue at 20-Across is "What's hidden in this puzzle" and the answer is strung symmetrically throughout the grid:
So, what does this mean? It means that if you write the first letter of every one of the clues, in order, starting at 1-Across
and ending at 60-Down, they spell out the following message:
Imagine how difficult it would be to get all this just right.
Here are the theme clues and their answers.
This is anything but unexceptional. It is jump-up-and-down extraordinary.
First, it does meet, of course, the criteria for the symmetrical placement of theme answers, in this case three full-length 21-character answers and two 20-character answers.
Second, the sentence is natural-sounding, not strained.
Third, and most important, the sentence is true.
Think how hard it must have been to get this sentence to be true, considering the specific numerical facts asserted in the first and fourth answers.
The first and fifth clues. If you think about it, if there happened to be 73 dark squares instead of 72 as claimed then the answer to the first clue would have to change to SEVENTYTHREE, which is two characters longer than SEVENTYTWO, which immediately creates serious grid-layout problems for the constructor.
First, changing from SEVENTYTWO to SEVENTYTHREE means changing four of the Down answers that crossed the original answer, which might or might not be a big deal.
But second is that correcting the first answer from SEVENTYTWO to SEVENTYTHREE changes the answer! If there really were 73 dark squares when the answer said SEVENTYTWO, changing the answer to SEVENTYTHREE takes up two more dark squares in the grid, which immediately changes the correct answer from the aforementioned SEVENTYTHREE to SEVENTYONE, which of course immediately changes the number of dark squares again, which immediately changes the correct answer again. This becomes a crazy loop, where every correction in one answer and every grid-change immediately creates a problem somewhere else.
And, if you remember that diagonal symmetry must be maintained, it's 100% worse than all that, because every time the length of the answer to the first clue changes, the length of the answer to the symmetrically matched clue, the fifth one, must also change (which, of course, also means the answers to some of the crossing Down answers must also change), which means the correct answer to the first clue instantly changes yet again.
The fourth and second clues. And while you're looping crazily around all the combinations of the first clue's answer, you also have to make sure the answer to the fourth clue changes to reflect the current total number of words (answers) in the puzzle. Of course, any changes in the length of that answer will instantaneously change both the accuracy and the length of the answer to the first clue, which will instantaneously change the length of the fifth clue as well, of course, which will instantaneously change the answer to the first clue yet again.
And, of course, if you actualy do change the number of answers from 140 then that changes the length of the answer to the fourth clue, which immediately changes the length of the answer to the second clue, which, remember, must match the fourth answer symmetrically. Both of these changes instantly change the answer to the first clue, which instantaneously changes the length of the fifth clue as well, which then changes the answer to the first clue, which then changes the . . .
And don't forget, every time you change an Across answer you have to change some of the Down answers, which can affect the Across answers that cross those new Down answers, which can affect the Down answers that cross those new Across answers, which might well change the answers to the first and fourth clues. (I assume that it is because of the extraordinariness of this puzzle that the editor allowed the unusual answer at 99-Down, TZAR. If a theme is chosen and executed well enough, we are all the better for it if a liberty is taken.)
I am the better for having studied this particular puzzle a bit, and I hope you are now too.
The title of the Sunday, December 28, 2003, NYT puzzle was "Headlines that Make You Go 'Huh?'" The constructor is Seth A. Abel. All of the theme clues begin with "Ambiguous headline about," and here are three humorous examples:
And if that's all there was to the theme then it still would have been fairly impressive to get pairs of those exact people's names to match up in length and to be diagonally symmetrical (and, of course, to be factually accurate). Realize, once you've chosen an answer such as GEORGE KAUFMAN, you're pretty much stuck with it. You can't just go around changing letters the way you can with a shorter answer. For example, by changing only one letter the answer BAT can be changed to CAT, EAT, FAT, GAT, HAT, KAT, LAT, MAT, NAT, OAT, PAT, RAT, SAT, TAT, VAT, WAT, YAT; and BET, BIT, BLT, BOT, BUT; and BAA, BAD, BAG, BAH, BAM, BAN, BAR, BAS, and BAY. BAT can be changed in a lot of ways in order to accommodate the perpendicular answers, but you can't just go around changing GEORGE KAUFMAN to GLORGE KAUFMAP and not expect someone to notice.
Anyway, the fun part of this puzzle, the unusual part, is at 54-Across. The clue reads as follows:
The answer is ATTHEALGONQUINROUNDTABLE, but what's unusual about it is that that answer appears in a circle (well, OK a square, which is almost a perfectly unround circle). The first part of that answer reads ATTHEAL, then you have to turn the corner downwards to fill in GONQUI, then you have to go left to fill in NROUND, and finally you go up with TABLE to complete the circle.
James M. and James C. Jenista used a similar idea in a more fiendishly twisted way in the Saturday, January 3, 2004, NYT.
For example, the clue at 17-Across is "Disappointing election results," and once you have worked out the Down answers you're left with the answer LOW_SRINGS. If you make the turn, the answer turns out to be LowTURNouts.
As another example, also in the upper left corner of the grid, 4-Down's clue is "Discovery of Galileo," and the answer appears to be SA_OUTS. As if you didn't get it already, the answer really is SaTURNsRings. When was the last time -- whether in the field of crossword construction or any other -- that you came up with an idea this clever?
These rare puzzles -- the ones with a wickedly hidden theme that
requires you to strain your imagination just to figure it out -- are by far the most
enjoyable. I'm sure there's some reason they don't appear any more often than they
do, although as far as I'm concerned it's not much of one. If you decide to take up
the playing of crosswords and you stumble onto one that just
doesn't seem to be making sense, it's probably one where you really have to think outside
the box. Have fun.
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