wordplay, the crossword column
Sam Koperwas and Jeff Chen perform a bit of prestidigitation.
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WEDNESDAY PUZZLE — Congratulations to Sam Koperwas, who is making his first appearance in the New York Times Crossword today, and to Jeff Chen, who is making his 133rd. Incredibly, this is also Mr. Chen’s 88th collaboration, and Mr. Koperwas is Mr. Chen’s 50th collaborator. That kind of dedication to mentorship of new constructors is unparalleled among New York Times Crossword constructors — the person with the next-most collaborators has 20 fewer than Mr. Chen.
You might think that when a puzzle has two constructors, it would impact the personality or voice of the puzzle. Sometimes it does, but because collaboration in crossword construction can happen in many different ways, most such puzzles manage to maintain a sense of cohesion. In some collaborations, one constructor will create the grid and the other will write the clues, while in others, they might split the creation of the grid and the writing of the clues evenly, or they might construct and write clues jointly using videoconferencing and screen sharing. But no matter which construction methods collaborators use, they aim to create a puzzle that feels whole, even if the constructors themselves offer vastly different perspectives.
Today’s collaboration from Mr. Koperwas and Mr. Chen certainly feels cohesive — there’s no part of the puzzle that appears to be going off in two directions, apart from the theme (which does so intentionally!). More on that below, but first, let’s take a look at some of this puzzle’s more challenging clues and entries.
22A. I had a hard time parsing the answer to “Jaguar spot, for example.” I had CAR___ and could not figure out a word related to a big cat that started with CAR until I realized that a Jaguar is also a type of CAR, so a “Jaguar spot” is a CAR *AD*.
25A. The “Brand so named because it limits ultraviolet light” is RAY BAN, presumably because the lenses “BAN” ultraviolet RAYs from reaching your eyes.
28A. The “Big name in shampoo” is apparently PRELL, but I’m not sure how “big” this name really is — I’ve been using shampoo my entire life, and I have never once encountered the brand PRELL! However, it has appeared 21 other times in the New York Times Crossword, so I suppose I just haven’t been paying attention.
30A. A question mark indicates a pun, in this case on the word “band” — instead of referring to a twangy musical group, “Country band, for short?” is actually a reference to the band of countries known as THE U.N.
35A. My dad likes to call athletes who show off after making a big play “hot dogs,” so I had no trouble getting SHOW-BOATER as the entry for “Big hot dog?”
44A. Let’s put this one down as my favorite clue of the week. “Small-arms runner of years past?” sounds like it should be about a person who smuggled weapons in a bygone era, but instead it’s a hilarious clue for T-REX, a dinosaur with famously short arms.
53A. “Touchdown figs” refers not to scoring plays in football but to the times when airplanes touch down — ETAS.
12D. I was unfamiliar with the “Typesetting unit” PICA, but Merriam-Webster indicates that it is a unit of about one-sixth of an inch containing 12 points — I assume this is where the idea of 12-point font comes from? Font nerds (I know you’re out there), help me out in the comments, please!
35D. This is a term I’ve only ever seen in crossword puzzles, so it might be worth filing away for future solves. “Term of address in colonial India” is the clue for SAHIB.
36D. “Pot seeds?” is a wordplay clue for ANTES — it looks like a reference to something a person cultivating marijuana at home might purchase, but instead it’s about the money that seeds the pot in a game of poker.
As I mentioned above, the theme of this puzzle “goes off in two directions” — it involves entries in both the Across and Down positions. As the revealer at 59A explains, this puzzle involves “Pulling a rabbit out of a hat, e.g. … which happens three times in this puzzle.”
The first time we see a rabbit pulled out of a hat in this puzzle is in the northwest corner, where BRER rabbit (at 5D) crosses the word BEANIE in the entry BEANIE BABY. The second rabbit/hat crossing occurs in the eastern section of the puzzle, where PETER rabbit crosses through the BOATER of SHOW-BOATER (a BOATER hat is a flat-brimmed straw hat, and a BEANIE is a slouchy knit cap). Finally, in the western part of the grid, we have ROGER rabbit crossing down through DERBY HORSE (a DERBY is another name for a bowler hat).
It’s not easy to build a grid around a series of crossing theme entries — this sort of ambitious grid design necessarily constrains the fill, but Mr. Koperwas and Mr. Chen have done an admirable job of keeping the fill as clean as possible within those constraints. Congratulations to the duo for pulling off this neat trick — now let’s hear from them about their collaborative experience.
Sam Koperwas: When our high school-age son was waiting for a friend to stop by, we decided to whip out the chessboard. The horse goes like this, the castle (also known as a rook) goes like this … et cetera.
The friend comes in, sees me about to make a move, and says, “Whoa! You can’t go there! You do that, then he goes here …” My son and I exchange a look. So that’s how you really play this game.
Anyway, after my first few submissions to the NYT came back with polite but hardly encouraging rejections, I reached out to Jeff Chen, who I was advised might be willing to work with and mentor a new constructor. Happily, after some trial and error — OK, much trial and error — voilà, my puzzle is in The Times! Cool!
That said, do not get involved with this guy … unless you want to learn how to really play the game. To make a clean, tight and enjoyable puzzle — it’s a lot of work! And also extremely gratifying. So, with a tip of the hat to Jeff, I’ll gladly commit to the effort, and I look forward to the next opportunity.
Jeff Chen: I love Sam’s dedication to kaizen. Most constructors spend nearly 100 percent of their time developing their grid chops, but Sam has also put serious effort into his cluing. Many of the clever riffs today are his. It’s a joy to open up a set of clues he’s drafted and experience some delightful bit of punnery that’s new to me.
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The New York Times Crossword has an open submission system, which will be closed July 1 to Aug. 1. In the meantime, you can review our submission guidelines here.
For tips on how to get started, read our series, “How to Make a Crossword Puzzle.”
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