Saturday, April 18, 2015

Themeless 1: Apparently Not Everybody Likes What I Like

My first New York Times themeless puzzle ran today.  I submitted it quite a long time ago, several years ago, so it was interesting to look back on it recently, when I received a sneak-preview copy a few days ago.  My thoughts, being as impartial as I can, are that it has too much short dross -- ARY, RELO, OOP, OTO next to UTE, OTTOI, IDA, DECI, OLEO, and ALAR aren't good, and in fact, I've made it a priority to reduce this type of fill in my more recent themeless submissions (several of which have already been accepted) -- but the medium and the long entries rock.  Seriously, there's not a bad one in the bunch and there are a few legit gems (BELIEVEYOUME is my favorite answer and it was my first "seed" entry).

The critics mostly agree with my assessment.  Jeff Chen of XWord Info liked it the best.  (I was quite pleased to get a POW rating.)  Rex Parker of Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle said, more or less, what I did above, as did Amy Reynaldo of Diary of a Crossword Fiend.  However, the public -- or at least the commenting public -- was much more down on my puzzle than were the critics.  Both at Rex's blog and at the NY Times WordPlay blog, there were a decent amount of negative comments and the overwhelming percentage of them came from people claiming it was too reliant on proper nouns and too trivia oriented.  In fact, the number one "Readers' Pick" comment at the WordPlay blog is:
Not impressed with this puzzle.  It's just a game of "How many obscure proper nouns can I Google and put in a puzzle." 
I understand the sentiment of this comment.  As I mentioned in my constructor comments at XWordInfo, I sometimes forget that people don't love all the things that I love.  I've had many a puzzle rejected, in part, because entries I thought were awesome Will Shortz did not think were awesome at all: VERBALKINT, THEGOOGLE (based entirely off a joke from The Onion), and JIMMORA (he of "Playoffs?!" fame) all come to mind.  Constructing, I do tend to get caught up in my own little "crossworld" and not think about the broader public.  That's a fair critique.

On the other hand, to say I crammed the puzzle full of obscure proper nouns is absurd (and it's even more absurd to say that I had to Google them -- those answers are pure Gulczynski [tapping my head]).  For one thing, take a look at the grid -- ICECOLDBEVERAGE, BELIEVEYOUME, LAPDOG, TEAPARTY, FIREPLACE, SOUNDSLIKEAPLAN, OHCOMEON, HOWNICE, BOOKEM, OEDIPAL, VULGAR, BABYSIT -- there's a slew of decent-to-very-good, longish, common words and phrases for a solver to get a foothold.  If you can nail this stuff, the proper nouns, even if they aren't up your alley, will mostly fall into place.

For another thing, here are some of the proper nouns in the puzzle commenters said they didn't know, along with the number of Google hits they get:
  • THECLASH: 16.7 million.  Only the most well-know punk band ever (arguably).  
  • PANTERA: 30.9 million.  Heavy metal might not be your bag (it's not mine), but you can't argue with the massive popularity of Pantera.
  • ECKHART: 9.3 million.  "Aaron Eckhart" (what I entered into Google) was in all the recent Batman movies and Erin Brockovich.  Even if you have never heard of the movie in the clue (Thank You for Smoking) he is a pretty big star.
  • DIRKDIGGLER: 380 K.  I really wanted the clue, "1997 film character who finally reveals himself in the end."  I suppose that would have really thrown people for a loop.
  • RAINES: 225 K.  "Ella Raines" was an old-timey actress, but apparently still one who is pretty well-known.
  • TSR: 526 K.  I Googled "TSR" + "D & D".  Admittedly bad fill, but not that obscure.  There are a lot of D & D nerds out there.
  • NED: 631 K.  "Ned Flanders" is the guy who says "okely-dokely" on that little-known TV show called The Simpsons.
  • DIAS: 380 K.  "Bartolomeu Dias" was the first known European to sail around Africa.  That's kinda a big deal, right?  
  • LINA: 43 K.  I Googled "Lina" + "Singin' in the Rain" -- not a ton of hits.
  • CHET: 67 K.  I admit "Chet Lemon" was purely self-indulgent.  I love the '84 Tigers.  They started the season 35-5.  They only lost five of their first 40 games!  Five!  (And then they got swept by "my" Seattle Mariners who lost 88 games on the season.  Baseball is weird.)  
  • CRACKOS: 936.  This is a late entry.  I forgot about the biggest offender of them all.  "Graham Crackos" gets a whopping 936 hits -- not 936 K, just 936.  So that one is super obscure.  But also super inferable.
So, OK, I'll give you Lina, and I'll give you Chet [late entry: and Crackos], but that's about it.  Everything else is fair game.  Some of it (e.g., The Clash) I'd say is even common knowledge.  Perhaps you didn't know it, but that's the way it goes.  It doesn't make it obscure or unfair fill.  The flip side of "not everybody loves what I love" is "just because I don't know it, doesn't mean everybody doesn't know it."  And Google, although admittedly not the ultimate arbiter of popularity, suggests that a lot of people know most the proper nouns in my grid.

So, Solver, I offer you a proposal: I'll agree to cut back on the self-indulgent proper nouns in future submissions, if you agree to not get sour because you happen to not know something that many others do know -- deal?  Great.

Oh, and also, buy my book.  Thanks.

Until next time ...

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Well, I guess it's time for my annual update to this blog.  My puzzle will run tomorrow in the New York Times.  It was accepted a month or so ago, which I think makes it the NYT puzzle with the fastest acceptance-publication turnaround for me.  It's nice when that happens.  My least favorite part of the publishing process is the publishing process.  I don't even mind the rejections (well, I do, of course I do, but I have thick skin).  It's the submitting and then the waiting for a response and then the waiting for it run.  Too much waiting.  Although, maybe that makes the rejections easier.  You don't feel the same emotional investment in a puzzle a year after you make it as you do when the ink is still dry on the last clue.

Speaking of publishing.  I've started a website where I post puzzles on a regular (approximately weekly) basis.  The site is ostensibly a sports blog (mainly about the Seattle Seahawks), and some of the puzzles are sports-themed, but I also have some good other-themed and themeless puzzles.  Also, it's got a great name that probably only people who are fans of the Seahawks, over the age 35, and knowledgeable in graduate-level mathematics will get.  (You know, gotta target the key demographics.)  You should check it out.

I wrote blurbs about this puzzle for XWordInfo and the Wordplay Blog, if you're interested in knowing a little bit more about it.  I won't rehash them here, because you can just click on them, but I will say that I particularly like my line about being "the Rob Deer of the New York Times Crossworld".  Mainly that's because I like pretty much any reference to a mid-'80s baseball player.  If speeding tickets came with a "Fun Fact" about the 1987 baseball season, I wouldn't mind getting them.

Your speed: 83, The number of RBI by Kevin Seitzer in 1987   

Anyway, I suspect this puzzle won't be the big hit that my last few were (Rex Parker doesn't really like it), but that's OK.  Even Rob Deer mixed in a few bloop singles.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Twelfth Man Puzzle

This blog is barely alive, but it's alive -- turns out having a kid really cuts into one's free time when it comes to things like blogging about crossword puzzles and Scrabble.  Who would have ever imagined?  If only while my wife was pregnant other couples with kids would have warned us about how time consuming having a child would be -- if only they would have said things like "You have no idea!" and "Your life is going to change so much!" -- I could've been more prepared.  Alas.

But I have occasion for this entry because a puzzle of mine will appear in tomorrow's NY Times.  I believe this is my seventh in NYT.  (Spoiler alert) It's a rebus puzzle in which there are 12 squares with the entire word MAN as the correct fill, and then the revealer is "TWELFTH[MAN]".  It's already available online (with a subscription, of course) and has been reviewed by Rex Parker here.  He seems to like it for the most part, I think.  He said it was too pop culture-y, which it might be, but there are two main reason for this:

1) My hand was completely forced in a section that required me to use SAMMI (Sammi "Sweatheart" of "Jersey Shore", whom I only know from Googling "Sammi" and was happy to find as I do know "Jersey Shore" was/is huge, so its cast is fair game as fill) and WINGO (Trey Wingo an ESPN analyst).  I couldn't see any acceptable way to avoid using both of these barely crossworthy, pop-culture people, without completely dismantling the basic structure of the puzzle which I didn't want to do, because I liked the basic structure of the puzzle.

2) I originally wrote this puzzle without the intent of submitting it anywhere, so I wasn't trying to make it broad and balanced, but rather specific to my interests.  It was going to be a sports-themed puzzle that I was going to post on my own puzzle website that didn't exist at the time and still doesn't.  That's why the first long answer is ELI[MAN]NING, a football player.  But then I got rolling on it, liked the way I was able to cram in so many MANs without forcing things too much, and decided the puzzle was worthy of NYT submission.

A few other things about his puzzle.

It was inspired by the Seahawks' upset win over the Saints in the playoffs two years ago.  I was living in Australia at time, and they would show American football live on regular TV at like 4 a.m. Monday morning.  Being the NFL addict I am (especially with the Seahawks, I was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington*) I used to wake up early and watch all the games (much to my wife's dismay -- we were renting a studio), so I was intently watching Seahawks vs. Saints.  Seattle likes to tout its 12th Man (which they have call the 12th Fan on some merchandise for legal reasons, despite the fact 12th Fan makes no sense whatsoever, because Texas A & M has some sort of copyright on 12th Man), and it gave me the idea for a 12th Man rebus puzzle.

I originally had the theme answer [MAN]SSIERE in the puzzle, but Will made me cut it, because he thought an answer based on a gag in a single "Seinfeld" episode wasn't very sporting to the solver (given Rex's critique, I guess he was right).

I have no idea who Armando Iannucci is.  I tried cluing AR[MAN]DO through a "Planet of the Apes" character, which in retrospect is odd considering I've never seen a "Planet of the Apes" movie.  I just assumed Armando was a somewhat main character because he was portrayed by Ricardo Montalban, a name actor.

I fought off the urge to use [MAN]ON[MAN], although it would've been very apropos given the election results of gay marriage referendums in Washington, Maryland, and Maine (which were all good news to me). 

That's it.  Hopefully I will have more puzzles published in the somewhat near future.  I don't have anything on the docket, but I've submitted one recently and have a plethora more ready to go, just waiting to be submitted if I would ever just do it.  As it turns out, I like creating a lot more than I like submitting.

*Technically I was raised in an area of unincorporated Pierce County, Washington which is now a city called University Place.  It's most famous residents include Gary Larson (through whom I tried to clue GARY, but Will changed it), Pat Tillman, and the basketball-playing Isaiah Thomas (not to be confused with the basketball-playing Isiah Thomas).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My First Entry In Months

The occasion is that I came across a copy of "Will Shortz Picks His Favorite Puzzles" while wasting time in a book store this afternoon, and I have two puzzles in it. For each puzzle Will says a little blurb, and for my first puzzle (chronologically), he says,

Here's a fun subject for a puzzle, and there is a little surprise at 41-Across. To date, Damon has had six crosswords published in The Times, two of which are in this book. Not a bad average!

Pretty cool. But it's a good thing he didn't state my acceptance / submission average, that one's not so great.

Actually, I knew that I had two puzzles in this book a while ago. Will mentioned it in an email while telling me a puzzle of mine was accepted (as did his helper Paula Gamache in an email telling me a puzzle of mine was rejected, I liked the first email better). The puzzle hasn't appeared yet, but I suspect it will soon. You never know though, sometimes they appear faster than other times.

My new goal is get a themeless puzzle accepted. I've submitted a few, but they've been no-gos. Looking back over them, I see why. I often get caught up in the moment constructing and convince myself that bad fill isn't so bad (like TOKENED). I think I can eliminate this with some more practice, so my new strategy is to make a bunch -- five or so, wait a little while, and then go back over them later and see if any of them are worth submitting.

We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Temporary Retirement

The main function of this blog is to record my Scrabble and crossword puzzle lives. At the moment, I am in temporarily retired from both of these things. I do intend to get this blog rolling again someday.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

NY Times Crossword Puzzle

The crossword puzzle in today's NY Times is one that I constructed. For a review of the puzzle click here (the naughty sub-theme discussed, was not intentional, unfortunately). It is part of my continued effort to become a well-known, established crossword puzzle maker. I don't have any on the docket to be published, but I have 3 submitted to the NY Times and 1 to the LA Times. I really like 2 of them, 2 of them I like less so.

I also have a handful of puzzles ready to be submitted after I hear about the other ones. A few of them I think are really good. I decided to be a bit more judicious about my selection of which puzzles I submit, especially to the NY Times. Before I took a bit of a machine gun approach, spray enough bullets and something will be hit. It was fairly effective as out of 1o or so submissions I had 3 published, but it leads to a lot of rejections and is just generally inefficient. Now, I'm going more with the sniper rifle (I just finished the excellent Iraq war memoir "Joker One", which explains the gun metaphors). I am only going to submit the puzzles I really I like and I think have a good chance of being published. The main drawback is that what I think is good and what an editor thinks is good are not always the same. Still, we'll see how my new strategy goes. I still really enjoy making crosswords puzzles, just for the sake of making of them, so I always have that to fall back on.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Par for the Course (Of Course)

My string of perfectly average Scrabble tournaments continues. In the annual Annapolis tournament, in 7 games I went 4-3 with a +12 spread . I think my rating will take a slight hit as my expected win total was probably somewhere between 4 and 5 against the field I played. I was rated 6th out of 20-some and surprisingly I did not play anyone with a higher rating than me. Anyway, on to the games.

My first opponent is Teresa Schaeffer and she beats me in a low-scoring, closed-board game, 309-341. After falling behind early, I have both blanks late, but also have the Q and the board is not bingoable. I use the blanks for a 66-point non-bingo (TUQUES) to pull within 5, but I can't pull out a victory. I make a mistake at the end playing ORZO instead of BOZO, but it only costs me spread points. I could not have won at that point.

Next up is Stan Williams. This is my sixth time playing Stan in a tournament, and heading into this game I'm 4-1 against him (now 5-1). It's a shoot-out early. I hit back-to-back bingos for 68 and 87 (ATONIES and MALTEDS) and he counters with a 54 point play (EXPAND) and a 75 point bingo of his own (TUBBERS). I break it open about at about the midway point, though, with CAROUSEL for 68, and subsequently cruise to victory, 478-376.

My opponent, Jermaine Harris, completely botches the next game and I capitalize, eking out a 365-360 victory. With a 9-point lead and no tiles left in the bag Jermaine plays TORIS, instead of several sure winners. I challenge the phony off the board (any mathematician worth his salt knows TORI is a plural) and after that the game is mine.

Dour Ralph Moore snatches a victory from my clutches in round 4. I have a 62-point lead near the end, it's my turn, there are three tiles left in the bag, one nice bingo line open, one so-so bingo line open and I'm pretty sure he has a blank. The strategy is to block the best line and try not to empty the bag. I do block the line, but I also empty the bag, because I'm more worried about dumping garbage in my rack than I should be. To make things worse I subsequently draw the J to add to my cluster-eff of tiles. Ralph deftly bingos through the other line and I lose 405-433. It was definitely a mistake emptying the bag, but again it was probably just lost spread points. I don't think there is any scenario that, following his bingo, allows me to score and clear enough of my rack to pull it out. Instead of being 3-1 at the lunch break I have to (dis)content myself with 2-2.

My first game after lunch is one of those games. One of those games you just get whooped and can do absolutely nothing about it. These games especially suck in a 7 game tourney because they just destroy your spread. On my first play I leave myself GENA, which is decent, and then proceed to draw E, E, and E. It was that type of game. My opponent, Laura Moyer, starts with COX for 37, FEZ for 44 and QUIETER for 101. Later in the game she bingos TRAINER (73) and VERIEST (91). I lose 344-514.

I rebound my next game and beat Ronnie Thomas 434-318. It is actually a very tight game, but she loses 50 points for going over her time limit looking for a 9-lettered, desperation bingo. She eventually settles on AMIRLINES, which of course I challenge off the board. Playing Ronnie is not very fun. She talks throughout the entire game, frequently griping about how bad her tiles are. She even made comments to the people playing next to us about their game. Apparently, bothering just me wasn't enough. Also, she monopolizes the space surrounding the board. She had two jugs of juice, a spilled open bag of cough drops and a several pound bag of walnuts on the table. Oh well, at least I won.

My final game of the day is the best one. I'm playing Ben Lefstein who I am 0-0-1 against. We tied several years ago in the D division in my very first tournament. We've both moved up since then (B divsion). In the Rockville tourney Ben went 13-0 in the C division which is impressive. He starts thing off with BUSTIER for 74, and I counter with QUARTZ for 48. A few plays later he bingos ANTIARS, which I know is good, but he makes BUSTIERS in the process, which I have never seen. Motivated by my misadventures last tournament I challenge, but the play is good. By my next turn I am down by 128. I quickly rally though with LEX for 36, followed by GROANERS for 72 and then RECOPIED for 76. A play later I am up by 3 when he puts down BOATLINE. I challenge again, this time successfully. (Marlon Hill later points out the valid anagram TAILBONE, but this didn't play, anyway). The endgame is rather anticlimactic for such a solid comeback. I get the last blank and the last S and play conservatively to secure a 429-410 victory. Not a bad way to end the day.

I'm not sure when my next tourney will be. Possibly Richard Popper's tournament in Delaware, possibly Nationals (which would be awesome, but also a serious commitment), possibly neither.