This Sunday's NYTimes Crossword Puzzle Had One of the Greatest, Smartest Themes Ever

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This Sunday's NYTimes Crossword Puzzle Had One of the Greatest, Smartest Themes Ever

Confession: I love crossword puzzles, and have loved them for a little over a decade. I watched my mother complete them as a child, but my own obsession started in a campus dining hall with the simple, small puzzles that ran in my school newspaper—and which seemed very difficult at the time. I was hooked, and within a couple years I had graduated on to the creme de la creme: The New York Times puzzle, edited by Will Shortz. I saw the excellent documentary Wordplay, I bought a digital subscription, and as I improved, I set myself the outrageous task of successfully completing a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday puzzle in the same week—a tantalizing goal I have come within one letter of achieving, but that eludes me still.

The intensity of my love for crosswords waxes and wanes depending on life’s other commitments, but when it’s on the rise, I’m the kind of person who will spend 20 minutes reading the big crossword blogs. Once, in 2009, in the high fever of infatuation, I even constructed my own crossword puzzle (so hard) and sent it in to Will Shortz. An assistant responded that the “theme didn’t excite him quite enough.” (The right call, for the record.)

In short, I’m a crosswordin’ fool. And I have seen good puzzles, bad puzzles, and superlatively great puzzles. But the puzzle I saw this Sunday, by constructing legend Jeff Chen, is the superlatively greatest of them all. Two days later, I’m still stunned—this is what the word ‘gobsmacked’ was invented for—and I feel an irrepressible urge to share this slice of genius with you.

First, you should know that every puzzle has an overarching theme, and the answers related to the theme are typically the longest on the puzzle grid. On Mondays, there may be just three or four theme answers, but on Sundays there tend to be at least eight. Sunday puzzles are also unique for having a title; Chen’s was “Twisting One’s Words.” In most cases, there is one central clue that serves as a guide for the rest of the theme answers, and this puzzle was no exception:

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33-Down: What causes storms to swirl in opposite directions in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Coriolis Force

Cool. Most of us know this phenomenon from the way toilets flush, and in the official NYTimes crossword blog, Chen makes reference to the effect:

Back before computers, the military had to employ mathematicians to calculate projectile trajectories by hand, adjusting for such obvious factors as gravity, wind, friction, etc. But one factor that initially eluded some of the best minds was how the Earth’s spin affected a long-range trajectory. Must have been baffling for these über-educated professors to miss by a mile, scrambling to figure out why the heck they had been so far off course. It’s stories like this that make the CORIOLIS FORCE so fascinating to me.

Aw, who am I kidding? I just like flushing things down the toilet.

And this is where it starts to get good. The first themed clue, in the upper left corner, makes use of a very strange pattern:

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4-Down: Question asked while tapping a microphone

Is this thing on

You’re probably confused right now. Don’t worry, I was too. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t completely understand the theme until I had finished the puzzle. Here’s what’s happening:

1. The first space, occupied by 4-down, is just three letters: I-S-T

2. At that point, the clue “swirls” around the black space, the way a storm moves, or the way a toilet flushes. Just like—you get it—THE CORIOLIS FORCE. When Chen named his puzzle “Twisting one’s words,” he meant it quite literally. (This is the point where my stunned brain floats off into outer space, never to return.)

(First note: In the print and web versions, unlike the Across Lite version I used, there were little arrows to indicate the direction of movement here.)

(Second note: It’s apparently a myth that toilets flush in different directions because of this force, but the storm part is true.)

3. It swirls in a counterclockwise fashion here, hitting the “H” first, then the “I”, and then up to the “S.”

4. Here’s the crazy part: It then goes back to the “T,” back to the “H”, and back to the “I” again before finishing in 31-down with “N-G-O-N.” So it revolves twice around the black square before heading south. (31-Down is simply clued with a hyphen.) It makes a repeating spiral, one in which three different boxes are utilized twice.

Maybe I don’t have enough experience, but I’ve never seen that kind of motion before in a crossword puzzle. On its own, it’s pretty mind-blowing. I’m impressed that anyone could find even one example of this kind of expression, because what you need is a repeating set of three letters separated by one unique letter.

In this case, the repeating set is “T-H-I,” which we see twice: is-THI-s-THI-ngon. The “S” stands between the two iterations of the sequence, which lets it rotate around the black space and hit the three key letters twice. And of course, those rogue letters on the side have to fit in with the across clues:

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26-Across: Advanced degree in math?

Nth

27-Across: ____ army, group that marches across the earth in Revelation

Satans

(I think my earlier Michelangelo comparison may have been wrong. Instead, maybe Chen is the Robert Johnson of constructors, and he sold his soul to Satan to create this puzzle, and in return Satan demanded that Chen honor him with a clue. This is all speculation.)

Of course, since this is Sunday, Chen couldn’t just have one theme answer. He had to have so, so many, and the crazy SOB found them:

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The northern hemisphere theme answers:

6-Down: Experiences fame

Has the limelight (E-L-I around the M, hasth-ELI-m-ELI-ght)

13-Down: Drink for Hercule Poirot

Creme de menthe (E-M-E around the D, cr-EME-d-EME-nthe)

14-Down: Spreading belief?

Manifest destiny (E-S-T around the D, manif-EST-d-EST-iny

Incredible stuff. It seems like the kind of clues he’d have to store up over a lifetime, but knowing Chen, it probably took him like ten minutes while he ate a sandwich with one hand and also built a Guinness world record house of cards with the other.

As amazing as this is so far, things get even better once we head to the puzzle’s southern hemisphere:

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66-Down: Plus or minus thing

Battery terminal (T-E-R around the Y, bat-TER-y-TER-minal)

Notice anything here?

Now the clue rotates clockwise around the black space!

Why? Because it’s the Coriolis force, baby, and we’re now in the southern hemisphere! Things spin the other way! (This is the point where my still-stunned brain decides to come back to Earth just to check in, sees this new development, and dives into the ocean to spend the rest of its life hiding with the creatures of the deep.)

Look, it’s entirely possible that I’m just a hopeless nerd. Maybe this doesn’t seem as impressive to you as it does to me, and maybe I should be institutionalized. But the amount of pleasure this act of brilliance gives me is difficult to describe. It’s just so perfect, so virtuosic, and yet so playful. It’s the Platonic ideal of a crossword puzzle. And the amount of creativity and brainpower it takes to actually conceive of and create it is astounding to me.

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The last theme clues:

84-Down: [How it might have happened]

Dramatization, A-T-I around the Z, dram-ATI-z-ATI-on

69-Down: Crawling, say

On hands and knees, A-N-D around the S, onh-AND-s-AND-knees

88-Down: Texas

Lone star state, S-T-A around the R, lone-STA-r-STA-te

One more thing about the degree of difficulty Chen was dealing with—crossword puzzles have rotational symmetry, meaning that if you do a 180-degree spin, the black spaces are in exactly the same place. We’re getting into the weeds here, but bear with me while I explain what this added to Chen’s burden:

1. Based on the way he constructed, every clue had to be either 10 or 12 letters long. That takes a hard concept and makes it totally unfair and impossible.

2. It gets even more complicated: Because of the placement of the black boxes, the gimmick of the clues (the three-letter sequence surrounding a fourth letter) had to happen at a very specific point in the word. For example, look at the picture directly above this. The upper-left theme clue “Is-this-thing-on” hits the black box after three letters, so the T-H-I sequence goes from letters three through five in the clue. What this means is that in the lower right quadrant, the clue will have just three letters below the black box at the end. In this case, it’s “lone-star-state,” but the A-T-E has to be by itself at the bottom, with five letters above it to maintain the symmetry.

In other words, Chen not only needed a 10-word clue, but he needed one where the three-letter-sequence came in letters five through seven, and again in nine through eleven. If you presented me with that task and those limitations, my immediate reaction would be to curl up in a ball and weep until somebody put me out of my misery. But Chen aced it—he found the one idiom in the English language that meets the criteria.

Have I lost you yet? If so, my apologies, but I had to write this post because the usual crossword bloggers didn’t quite give the puzzle its due. (Rex Parker was typically cranky, bringing the same joy to puzzling that most of us bring to our semi-annual dentist’s visit…he actually got upset that after all of Chen’s effort, the central clue was “Coriolis Force” instead of “Coriolis Effect.” I like his blog, but geez, that’s like being mad at Michelangelo because he got the Archangel Gabriel’s fingernails wrong. Bigger picture, Rex.)

Constructing crossword puzzles is an esoteric skill, and most people will never understand or appreciate how hard it can be just to create something very basic—this is sadly true even among the puzzle-solving community. It will never be considered “art” in any broader sense, and you better do it for the love of the game, because praise and recognition are scarce.

But even in the shadows of this arcane genre, geniuses are capable of astounding feats, and I believe that Jeff Chen’s Sunday puzzle is as impressive as it gets. Like his best clues, it sent my mind reeling around the black spaces. And when my moment of recognition finally came, and I grasped the full meaning of the creation, I experienced the same awestruck frisson that I’ve felt after watching a beautiful film, or hearing a timeless melody.