Friday, September 27, 2013

Litzstarter Update

This will be a short post since I'm out of town for a few days—in fact, I just spent a couple of hours today talking about the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project to congressional staffers in Washington and to other Davidson Fellows!  It's been very interesting and a lot of fun explaining the project to people who aren't familiar with crossword history.

My absence certainly didn't slow down the litzing—as I write this, we're now at 11,850 on the litzing thermometer!  The week started off with Ed Sessa sending in 7 puzzles on Saturday morning.  That afternoon, Nancy Kavanaugh sent in 18 more, putting her contest total at more than 100!  And Saturday night, Jeffrey Krasnick sent in an additional 6.  Sunday morning, Jeffrey sent 5 more, putting us over 11,700 on the litzing thermometer!  Then half an hour later, Denny Baker sent in an additional 7, putting his regular total at more than 600 litzed puzzles!  A few hours later, Todd McClary sent in 7, putting his regular total at 200 litzed puzzles!  Sunday evening, Jeffrey sent in 1 more puzzle.  A few hours later, Ralph Bunker sent in 23 more puzzles; an hour later, Mark Diehl sent 35 more, and about an hour and a half after that, Mike Buckley sent in 7 more!  That came to 85 puzzles in just one day!  Monday night, Jeffrey sent in 6 puzzles, then less than an hour later, Vic Fleming sent in 7 more, putting us over 11,800 on the litzing thermometer!  A few hours later, Todd Gross sent in 10 more proofread puzzles.  Wednesday morning, Denny sent in 7 more puzzles; that afternoon, Nancy sent in an additional 21 puzzles.  Thursday evening, Vic sent 14 more puzzles.  Very early Friday morning, Todd sent in 10 proofread puzzles.  And then this afternoon, new litzer Brian Kulman sent in his first 7 puzzles.  Awesome week, everyone—thanks so much!  I look forward to seeing another deluge of puzzles this week!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Over 11,600, In 1962, Will Shortz Event, Litzers at BAC Fill, and the First Annual Bad Fill Razzies

This is almost the end of Litzstarter's third week, and we're now at 11,663 on the litzing thermometer!  This past week was phenomenal, with more than 200 puzzles coming in!  Howard Barkin got us off to a fast start for the week on Friday night with 14 puzzles.  A few hours later, C. G. Rishikesh (Rishi) sent in 6 more.  Saturday morning, I received an e-mail from Ralph Bunker, who wanted to start litzing—welcome, Ralph!  A few hours later, Nancy Kavanaugh sent in 18 puzzles, putting her regular total at more than 600 litzed puzzles!  That afternoon, Vic Fleming sent in 7 puzzles.  Very early Sunday morning, Rishi sent 1 more puzzle, which was followed by 7 more from Jeffrey Krasnick a few hours later and then an additional 7 from Denny Baker.  Sunday night, Ralph sent in his first batch of 6 puzzles.  A few hours later, Mark Diehl sent in 35 puzzles, putting us over 11,500 on the litzing thermometer and his own personal total over 3,500!  Early Monday morning, Jeffrey sent in 7 more puzzles.  Tuesday afternoon, Ralph sent in another 6.  That evening, Vic sent in 6, which were followed by 18 more from Mark.  Early Wednesday morning, Mike Buckley sent in 7 puzzles, putting us over 11,600 on the litzing thermometer!  That afternoon, Denny sent in 7 more, and in the evening, Jeffrey sent an additional 7.  Late Thursday morning, Howard sent in 14 puzzles.  That afternoon, Vic sent in 7 more puzzles, putting his regular total at 200 litzed puzzles!  Then early this morning, Mark sent in another 6 puzzles, which were followed late this afternoon by 7 from Tracy Bennett.  Whew—it makes me tired just writing about it!  Awesome job, everybody!

We're now in 1962, a year many people who were children then remember for atomic bomb drills ("duck and cover") in schools during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and many who were adults remember for the death of Marilyn Monroe.  But on a lighter note, 1962 was also a landmark year in the history of late-night television, when Johnny Carson took over as host of The Tonight Show.  Heeere's Johnny!

Photo courtesy of

In other news, Will Shortz recently gave a talk in Minnesota in which, among other things, he discussed the history of American crosswords and told the audience about the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project!  Thanks so much, Will!  This very entertaining event, "Will Shortz:  An Evening with the Puzzle Master," was recorded in its entirety and can be seen here or on YouTube:

Also, last Saturday I flew up to Oakland for the 6th Annual BAC Fill, where I saw litzers Mark Diehl, Todd Gross, and Andrew Laurence (who was also the tournament's organizer)!  Here are a couple of photos from this awesome event, which was a ton of fun:

Mark, me, and Todd taking a break from litzing!

Andrew and me after discussing litzing

Today's featured puzzle was constructed by Anthony Morse.  It was originally published on January 1, 1955; edited by Margaret Farrar; and recently litzed ahead of schedule at Litzing Headquarters since it's such a standout construction!  This lovely 15 x 15 features a jaw-dropping 18 mostly symmetric theme entries related to bridge, eight of which contain rebus squares with one of the four bridge suits!  The interlock is very elegant—I'm amazed that the constructor was able to work the long down theme entries CUT AND DEAL, DUPLICATE BRIDGE, and TOURNAMENT into the grid so elegantly, despite the constraints posed by the rebus squares.  Also, I love all the short bonus theme entries like SLAM, JACK, and JOKER!  On top of all this, what little nonthematic fill there is is jampacked with Scrabbly letters (surprisingly not to the detriment of the fill's overall quality) and even lively in parts.  My favorite nonthematic entry is SILLABUB (clued as "Frothy mixture of wine and cream.")—although I've never heard of this unusual term, it's a lot of fun to say!  Webster mentions that the primary spelling is actually syllabub, which it defines as "milk or cream that is curdled with an acid beverage (as wine or cider) and often sweetened and served as a drink or topping or thickened with gelatin and served as a dessert."  The etymology of this term is unknown, though it was apparently first used by English writer John Heywood in 1537.  JORUM ("Large drinking bowl") is also a very interesting word, which I erroneously assumed came from Latin.  According to Webster, the most probable etymology is from the Biblical character Joram, who "brought with him vessels of silver" in 2 Samuel 8:10.  Back to the puzzle:  The only nonthematic entry that caused me to raise an eyebrow was A TAR ("Ralph Rackstraw, for instance."), which I would have much preferred to see clued as the variant of attar or even as the Salieri opera.  One could also complain about the plural suffix INGS and the hard-core crosswordese ALATE ("Having wings."), ITEA ("Virginia willow."), AINU ("Hokkaido inhabitant"), and ORLE ("Border of an escutcheon."), but all of these entries (with the exception of INGS) were common in the pre-Shortzian era.  In all, this is an exemplary pre-Shortzian puzzle and a true model for how to squeeze theme entries into a 15 x 15 grid (albeit one that's slightly over the maximum word count)!  I look forward to seeing what other gems constructor Anthony Morse has in store!  For now, here's the solution grid (with highlighted theme entries):

I've seen many iffy entries in pre-Shortzian puzzles, but a handful have stood out to me as being particularly outrageous, thus earning them a nomination in the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project's First Annual Bad Fill Razzies, which focuses on 1968, 1969, and 1970!  I've left the specific dates and constructor names off these entries, but all of them appeared in puzzles from these three years:
  • Clue:  "___ Sheboygan."
    • Answer:  MENTION MY NAME IN
  • Clue:  ___ armor.
    • Answer:  CHINK IN MY
  • Clue:  "Must'a been somethin' ___"
    • Answer:  I ET
  • Clue:  Start of a letter to Mr. Boone.
    • Answer:  DEAR DAN [which has since assumed a more legitimate cluing angle thanks to behavioral economist Dan Ariely's column]
  • Clue:  Scared out ___.
    • Answer:  OF OUR SKINS
  • Clue:  They ___ cry from (different).
    • Answer:  ARE A FAR
  • Clue:  A. ___, English writer.
    • Answer:  A MILNE
  • Grand Finale:  Four very iffy entries from the same puzzle, which already included 8-plus partials longer than 7 letters:
    • Clue:  Latecomer's penalty
      • Answer:  NO SEAT
    • Clue:  Hostess's oversight
      • Answer:  NO ASHTRAYS
    • Clue:  Party disappointment
      • Answer:  NO SONGS
    • Clue:  Result of being trod on
      • Answer:  NO TOENAIL

And the winner for the worst piece of nonthematic fill in 1968, 1969, and 1970 New York Times puzzles is  . . . NO TOENAIL!  This entry and its clue are so contrived (and even a bit gross) that I couldn't help cracking up, which was probably Will Weng's intention!  Below is a picture of some painted toenails, which clearly didn't get trod on:

Photo courtesy of Our Hopeful Life

Friday, September 13, 2013

Litzstarter Update and a Random Factoid

The second week of Litzstarter is coming to an end, and as I write this, we're at 11,433 on the litzing thermometer—which means that more than 400 puzzles have been litzed in just 13 days!  An hour or so after I posted last week's update, Jeffrey Krasnick sent in 7 more puzzles, which were followed a few minutes later by 7 from Vic Fleming.  Saturday morning, Nancy Kavanaugh sent in 14 puzzles, which were followed a few hours later by 7 from Ed Sessa.  Saturday night, 10 proofread puzzles came in from Todd Gross; a few minutes later, Jeffrey sent in 7 more litzed puzzles, and then Mark Diehl sent in 21 more.  An hour and a half later, Tracy Bennett sent in 7 litzed puzzles, putting us over 11,300 on the litzing thermometer!  Sunday evening, Jeffrey sent in 7 more, which were followed a bit later by 7 from Todd.  Monday morning, Mark sent in 21 more.  Early Tuesday morning, Jeffrey sent in 7, which were followed a couple of hours later by 14 more from Mark (whose contest total came to more than 100!).  Tuesday evening, Nancy sent in 21 puzzles.  Wednesday night, 11 proofread puzzles came in from Todd.  And then Thursday night, Jeffrey sent in 7 more puzzles, putting us over 11,400 on the litzing thermometer and his regular total at exactly 700!  A few hours later, Mark sent in 21 puzzles, and very early Friday morning, another 7 litzed puzzles came in from Todd.  It's been a truly amazing litzing week—great job, everyone!

Last night when Mark sent in his batch of 21 puzzles, he told me about a "random factoid" that made me laugh out loud:  One of the 1963 puzzles had the clue, "Where 140,353 farms are."  How many of you knew the answer for that one off the top of your head?  Not me, that's for sure!  Turns out the answer is OHIO.  I'm sure that figure has changed over the past 50 years, though!

So far, this blog has almost exclusively featured themed puzzles.  But I've also been keeping track of particularly good themeless puzzles I've come across.  Some of my favorite pre-Shortzian themeless constructors are Jack Luzzatto, Joseph LaFauci (whose work will be featured in a future post), and Arthur Schulman.  This week's featured puzzle, which was constructed by crossword legend Jack Luzzatto, edited by Eugene T. Maleska, litzed by Mark Diehl, and originally published on July 23, 1977, may be the best themeless I've seen in the entire pre-Shortzian era!  First off, the 64-word grid Luzzatto chose is lovely—there aren't too many blocks in any one region, and there are just two three-letter entries in the whole puzzle.  On top of that, the grid is jam-packed with both interesting entries and Scrabbly letters!  Highlights in the fill include HOT POTATO, FLEA TRAP, ALKALIZES, MOBILIZES, TAKEN IN, RUN COLD, CYANIDE, and GRAND AMS, but my favorite clue/entry pair has to be "It's in the bag" for GOLF CLUB!  Other interesting longer entries include BY PROXY, ANTIPODAL, SINECURE, and CATHEAD (which I've never heard of).  CATHEAD, which sounds awesome, was clued as "Timber for the anchor"; Webster offers the more complete definition "a projecting piece of timber or iron near the bow of the ship to which an anchor is hoisted and secured."  DARBIES ("Plasterers' floats; trowels"), ENTAL ("Inner, in anatomy"), the partial A BIG, the crazy-hard clue for AMAS ("Japanase women divers"), and the sprinkling of British spellings (ODOUR and LITRE) are the only other things that I would consider not-so-great.  Overall, this tour de force feels many years ahead of its time!  It's not every day you see a pre-Shortzian themeless with such a stunning grid and fill.  I look forward to reviewing many more Luzzatto masterpieces as we head further back into the '60s and then proceed to the '50s!  For now, the answer grid can be seen below:

Today's featured pre-Shortzian entry, DESQUAMATE, originally appeared in the February 21, 1968, puzzle (constructor unknown), which was edited by Margaret Farrar and litzed by Todd Gross.  According to the Ginsberg clue database, this unusual entry has never been reused in the Shortz era.  Its original clue, "Scale, as fish," paraphrases the Webster definition, "to peel off in scales."  Webster goes on to mention that desquamate comes from the past participle of the Latin desquamare, meaning "to scale," which ultimately comes from the Latin de (meaning "from") and squama (meaning "scale").  Apparently desquamate can also be used in a medical sense, meaning "to peel off in the form of scales," which is why I decided not to look for a picture of desquamation!  Instead, here's a much more pleasant picture of some fish scales:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Fast Start for Litzstarter, 1981 Puzzles Up, In 1963, and September Litzer of the Month Andrew Laurence

It's been a fast start for Litzstarter—in just six days, we've litzed more than 200 puzzles!  (To see litzers' contest totals, click here or on the Contest Totals tab above.)  Very early on Sunday, September 1, C. G. Rishikesh (Rishi) sent in the first 6 puzzles of the litzing contest.  Sunday afternoon, I received an e-mail from Ed Sessa, who said he'd decided to give litzing a try—welcome, Ed!  A few hours later, Jeffrey Krasnick sent in 14 puzzles; these were followed by 7 from Denny Baker.  Sunday night, Tracy Bennett sent in a month of proofread puzzles.  Early Monday, Rishi sent in one more litzed puzzle, and a few hours later, Jeffrey sent in another 7.  Monday afternoon, Nancy Kavanaugh sent in 14, which were followed by 7 more that evening from Denny.  A bit later, Todd Gross sent in 11 proofread puzzles from 1980, and just a few minutes later, Howard Barkin sent in 7 more litzed puzzles.  Then Tuesday morning Mark Diehl sent in 14 puzzles, which were followed that evening by 7 litzed puzzles from Todd, putting us over 11,100 on the litzing thermometer!  A short while later, Tracy sent in 7 litzed puzzles.  On Wednesday morning, Nancy sent in 14 more puzzles, which were followed that night by 7 more litzed puzzles from Todd and, a few hours later, by 7 more from Jeffrey.  Early Thursday morning, Mark sent in 21 more puzzles.  Then around lunchtime, Nancy sent in 14 more, which were followed that evening by 7 from Todd McClary.  Just a few minutes later (22, to be exact!), Howard sent in 14 more, putting us over 11,200 on the litzing thermometer (and his own regular total at more than 700!)!  Very early Friday morning, Mike Buckley sent in 7 puzzles, then later Mark sent in 13 more (putting his regular total at more than 3,400!).  A short while later, Todd sent in 10 more proofread puzzles.  And here at Litzer Central, we've been litzing puzzles as time permits to help move us along even faster to 13,000!  As I write this, we're at 11,232 on the litzing thermometer—well on our way to meeting our goal!  Awesome work, everybody—thanks so much!

Great news:  The proofread 1981 puzzles are now up on XWord Info!  We've already proofread a couple of months in 1980, so those should be ready in the not-too-distant future.

We're also now in 1963, a year most people who were alive then remember for the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our 35th President, on November 22.  I wasn't born yet, but my parents remember vividly where they were when they heard the news, even though it was 50 years ago.  My mom (then in fourth grade!) was living in Paris.  She and my grandparents had just attended a performance by the famous French mime Marcel Marceau and found out as they left the theatre.  My dad was in the living room of his old house in Culver City.  If you remember where you were then, feel free to write about it in the Comments.

© 1963, The New York Times

We're now also in a new month, and the September Litzer of the Month is BAC Fill (formerly Bay Area Crossword Puzzle Tournament) organizer Andrew Laurence.  BAC Fill takes place this year next weekend (Saturday, September 14)—even though I don't live in the Bay Area, I've been twice before and had a great time!  To read more about Andrew, click here or on the Litzer of the Month tab above.

I always find pre-Shortzian puzzles with topical themes, which I've dubbed buzzles (for buzz and puzzle), to be very interesting.  The most common buzzle theme I've encountered in the late '60s is the Space Age.  Most Space Age buzzles contain just one or two topical entries; this week's featured buzzle, however, really stands out in that it contains six main theme entries with a novel twist!  The buzzle, "Space Madness," was constructed by Eileen Bush; edited by Will Weng; published on June 22, 1969; and litzed by Martin Herbach.  Each of this buzzle's theme entries contains a pun on a space-related term—some of my favorites include CHEESE QUAKE (clued as "Moon eruption, perhaps"), OUT FOR LAUNCH ("Sign on an astronaut's door"), and COSMIC RELIEF ("Humor for serious astronauts," which feels particularly fitting)!  In addition to including a clever theme, the constructor was also able to weave a large number of nonpunny space- and flight-related theme entries into her fill, including GEMINI ("Early astronaut program"), COSMO ("Universe: Prefix"), LEONID ("One of a meteor swarm"), LUNIK ("Soviet moon rocket"), SABRE JETS ("Fighter planes"), SPLASH DOWN ("Dive, astronaut style"), GLENN ("Early astronaut"), ASPERA (which has the space-related clue "Ad astra per ___"), and ZOOMS ("Goes like a spaceship").  The nonthematic fill is lovely as well!  I particularly like the entries RENDEZVOUS, CALCULATOR (unusually high-tech for the puzzle's time period), and BELLOWS.  BRELOQUES ("Pendants on watch chains") is a very unusual word, but it sounds awesome!  There aren't any entries that jump out at me as being particularly junky, though KINO ("Cinema, in Europe"), SERS ("Indian weights"), and INDENE ("Oily hydrocarbon") aren't my favorites.  Overall, this is an exceptional buzzle—I look forward to seeing how other major '40s, '50s, and '60s events are portrayed in crosswords!  For now, here's the puzzle (with highlighted punny theme entries):

On the subject of the Space Age, here's a pentad of topical space- or flight-related clues I've noticed in other puzzles from the late '60s.  There will be many more Space Age clues highlighted in future puzzles!

  • September 9, 1967 (constructed by Joseph LaFauci, litzed by Mark Diehl)
    • Clue:  Phenomena of our time.
    • Answer:  SPACEMEN
  • November 27, 1967 (constructor unknown, litzed by Martin Herbach)
    • Clue:  Asteroid, sea version.
    • Answer:  STARFISH
  • December 20, 1967 (constructor unknown, litzed by Todd McClary)
    • Clue:  Vehicle of the future.
    • Answer:  AIR CAR
  • April 25, 1968 (constructor unknown, litzed by Mark Diehl)
    • Clue:  Name in the NASA roster.
    • Answer:  MARS
  • May 11, 1968 (constructor unknown, litzed by Mark Diehl)
    • Clue:  Visitor from space?
    • Answer:  UFO

The most interesting of these clues is the one for STARFISH—I'd never thought about a starfish in that way!  Below is a picture of this many-armed sea creature:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.