2008 Oryx Awards

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Back in 2007, my fellow crossword blogger Orange and I started keeping track of our favorite crosswords, and teamed up to form the two-member squad called the American Crossword Critics Association. A year ago, we posted our joint write-up of first annual awards, but ever since, constructor Andrea Carla Michaels—a naming consultant by trade—exhorted us to let her rename the ACCA Awards. And so it is that the second annual American Crossword Critics Association awards are hereafter referred to as the Oryx Awards. The oryx is an Old World antelope that sometimes has black and white coloring, just like a crossword. It's one of those four-letter words that crossworders know but many of their friends don't. And it's a sonic blend between "Orange" and "Rex," so we love it. The Oryx Awards have not (yet) been made manifest in shiny cast gold trophies to be handed out at a gala affair, so the recipients need not stumble nervously or tipsily to the stage to thank their agents.

Without further ado:

Best Easy Crosswords

These are typically themed Monday and Tuesday puzzles.

GOLD: Patrick Blindauer's New York Times, 10/6/08
  • Look, he turned a crossword puzzle into a dollar bill! It's adorable....and rectangular.
SILVER: Matt Ginsberg's New York Times, 12/2/08
  • "Would you hush? I'm working a crossword here." The world's noisiest crossword has 20 theme entries making a terrific DIN. KERPLUNK!
BRONZE: Laura Sternberg's LA Times, 3/11/08
  • Four famous people share the same first names as the AMERICAN IDOL judges. Two corners boast four-packs of 7- and 8-letter answers, and the fill is lively.
Best Medium Crosswords

This category includes themed daily-sized puzzles of Wednesday-NYT difficulty or greater, with no twisty gimmicks.

GOLD: Byron Walden's Onion A.V. Club, 1/2/08
  • Asymmetrical grid features Democratic (PILLORY CLINTON) and Republican (TWIT ROMNEY) "dirty debate tactics" with name-into-verb puns on candidates' names. Did we mention there are seven theme answers occupying 94 (!) squares?
SILVER: Alan Arbesfeld's New York Sun, 1/3/08
  • In "Strange Signs From Above," the zodiac puns are absolutely nuts: e.g., LEIGH BRA and "UH, QUERY US."
BRONZE: Dan & Mike Naddor's LA Times, 10/8/08
  • What do a BAT MITZVAH and AQUA VELVA have in common? Add MAN to the first word and you're spawning superheroes. Great "aha!" moment.
Best Gimmick Crosswords

These are the ones that people remember months or years later, the envelope-pushers that bend the rules, incorporate other kinds of puzzle challenges, and give our brains a delicious workout. These crosswords are so awesome, we couldn't honor just three.

PLATINUM: Patrick Blindauer and Francis Heaney's New York Sun, 1/11/08
  • "Squares Away" is a really hard rebus puzzle with an asymmetrical grid. Guess what? If you color the rebus squares black instead of putting the word BLACK in 'em, those new black squares make the grid symmetrical, and the entries that had the rebuses are still valid words. HONOR [BLACK]MAN turns into HONOR and MAN with a black square in between. Sheer crossword genius.
GOLD: Patrick Blindauer and Frank Longo's Sun, 11/20/08
  • "Three-Ring Circus" messed with our heads in a big way. It looks like a 15x16 grid with two 15-letter answers in the middle, but it turns out there's a TIGHTROPE WALKER balancing precariously between those rows—all the Downs that cross the 15s are one square shy, and the extra letters wedged in spell out TIGHTROPE WALKER. Devious!
PALLADIUM: Pete Muller's New York Sun, 2/29/08
  • The skull-crushing trick in "Return of the Indivisibles" is that answers to prime-numbered clues have to go in backwards. 2-Down is AIXELSYD, no joke. EDISPU is here too: UPSIDE is upside down.
SILVER: Patrick Berry's Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/12/08
  • "Standardized Test" has ABCDE in five places and you have to blacken the space for the correct answer to the accompanying multiple-choice questions. If you err, you're going to flunk the Down answers.
BRONZE: Donald Willing's New York Times, 11/1/08
  • An amazing debut puzzle in which every other Across row's answers appear backwards in the grid. We call it "Two-Way Streets" but the middle entry is STEERTSYAWOWT.
"Dishonorable" Mention: Joe Krozel's New York Times, 6/19/08
  • This is the famous LIES puzzle: the black squares spell out LIES and—this is the genius part—the clue for TEN tells you ten clues are lies. For example, tennis player AGASSI is clued as [Golf great Andre]. Terrific Shortzian cluing twist.
Best Themeless Crosswords

Themeless puzzles tend to be the hardest ones each week, barring crazy gimmick puzzles, and we love them so. A touch of sadism endears a constructor to us, as does a fondness for shiny new crossword vocabulary.

GOLD: Karen M. Tracey's New York Sun, 5/16/08
SILVER: Paula Gamache's CrosSynergy, 6/29/08
  • ZOOKEEPER collides with CLIMATE CANARY in the middle of the grid, YES, LET'S sends mixed messages by colliding with OH STOP IT ... and then there's Orange's favorite word: PASSEL.
BRONZE: Karen M. Tracey's New York Sun, 2/28/08

Best Sunday-Sized Crosswords

These puppies are usually 21x21 squares, so there's room for all sorts of wordplay and visual artistry that daily puzzles can't accommodate.

GOLD: Elizabeth Gorski's New York Times, 5/25/08
  • "Spy Glass" - James Bond-themed puzzle has all the Bond actors, plus IAN FLEMING, plus an alphabetical connect-the-squares element that creates a huge martini glass, inside of which sits the word MARTINI, as if representing the surface level of the drink within the glass. It's just an astonishingly imaginative feat of construction, and a real pleasure to solve as well. Oh, and JAMES is used to clue the "Bond" that all the theme answers share. I'm telling you, this puzzle doesn't stop.
SILVER: Patrick Berry's New York Times, 3/9/08
  • "Splits and Mergers"- theme answers function like rivers, where other words flow into or out of them. Thus "NOT IF I CAN HELP IT" branches off (zags, downward) to create NOTIFICATION, and CLEAN SLATE merges seamlessly into TRANSLATE, etc. Phenomenal.
BRONZE: Merl Reagle's Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/9/08
  • In "Advanced Placement Test," prepositions are replaced by the order of the remaining words in a phrase. Read between the lines shows up as THE READ LINES, and I before E except after C is I E C EXCEPT. Merl being Merl, there are 11 of these gems to solve in his crossword.
Toughest Puzzle of the Year

Stanley Newman's Newsday "Saturday Stumper" (Anna Stiga byline), 3/1/08
  • Some puzzles make us work harder—a lot harder—than others, but there are usually only one or two killer themelesses a year. This one was 2008's big bear, with that trademark Newmanian obliqueness in the clues.
Best Use of Crosswordese for a Higher Purpose

Dan Naddor's LA Times, 4/17/08
  • How many times have you rolled your eyes at yet another [Punxsutawney-to-Boise dir.] clue for a three-letter direction? You play the odds and plug in ENE without thinking about maps. In this crossword, all eight directions appear in criss-crossing pairs in the appropriate places within longer answers. "Gee, what's got NNW and WNW in it?" you ask. Heart's ANN WILSON and DOWNWIND, that's what.

Best New Website

Two of the crossword sites that launched in 2008 immediately established themselves as can't-miss favorites:
  • Brendan Emmett Quigley's eponymous site combines a blog in which BEQ posts three new crosswords a week and shares musings about crossword topics in his inimitable style. One of his latest puzzles is an early favorite for the 2009 Oryx Awards but hell, they're all good. Sometimes there are swear words, so this ain't your grandmother's crossword site.
  • At Matt Gaffney's Weekly Crossword Contest site, Matt posts a two-part puzzle challenge each week. First you fill in the crossword, and then you curdle your brain figuring out the contest answer. Each theme is different, as is each contest challenge—and 31 weeks in, Matt hasn't run out of clever ideas.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for...drumroll, please.

Constructor of the Year

GOLD: Patrick Blindauer
  • Patrick B2 continues to be an innovator with a gift for not just pushing the envelope but dissolving it completely. Nobody else has three Oryx winners this year, so Patrick pwned crosswords in 2008. No lone wolf, he co-constructs with a terrific group of collaborators.
SILVER: Karen Tracey
  • Karen's a themeless specialist, and her puzzles captivated us all year. We honored two of 'em with an Oryx, but pretty much all of her crosswords kicked ass. More, please!
BRONZE: Patrick Berry
  • Patrick B1 took the gold in this category last year. He's got two Oryx winners this year, but several more of his puzzles were in contention. He's a perennial innovator, and if you're not doing the Chronicle of Higher Education's weekly crossword, you're missing many of Patrick's twists and turns.


JannieB 7:00 PM  

I find it interesting that so few of your winners were in the NYT. Sort of gives credibility to all the carping we've been doing on the blog about themes lacking originality, banal fill, etc.

allan 9:06 PM  

Love the name. Very interesting read. Until I started following this blog, I never paid attention to the who the constructors were. Now that I do, hope it makes me a better solver.

mac 9:27 PM  

Was the Simpson puzzle considered at all? I just loved that one, and the tie-in to the program that evening.

Anonymous 10:34 PM  

Well done!!!!!!!!!!!!! SO cool.
How lucky someone (actually two someones)paid such close attention! Bravo to the American Crossword Critics Association
(aka ACCA)!!!
Acka Acka!

@Jannie B
Yes, interesting!
SO extra Yay to Rex and Orange for keeping solvers apprised of the brilliant Sun, Onion, Chron of Higher Ed, Matt Jones, BEQ, LA Times...that's a LOT of work!

And did you notice there was a nice balance between the sexes and that this year the Best Themeless Oryx recipients were all women?!
Shock and awe :)

Could not be more thrilled about Patrick Blindauer's Gold Oryx for "Constructor of the Year" if I had won it myself!

His dollar bill puzzle still takes my breath away
(partly because I swallowed it whole and pieces got lodged in my throat... ;)

I was all prepared to say to you:


but now I don't have to!

Yes, I'll bet it was. Think of all the amazing puzzles out there...that's what I'm saying about how much work this must have been to choose!

That whole Simpson's puzzle/tie-in was mind-boggling and luckily got its due in the world at large.
I mean, Merl is magic!
(Hey! Do you think Merl is short for Merlin?!)

My personal fave puzzle to have had a hand in this year appeared in the no-one-knows-there-is-a-puzzle-in-there Wall St. Journal. Patrick was able to create a grid that looked like an ant farm!

(Fingers crossed that his THREE Oryx awards won't change his staggering modesty and he is still willing to collaborate!)

Thanks! Now, about that ACPT... ;)

Unknown 11:05 PM  

...and just like in grade school, there really are no losers. Fun year with thanks to the winners, the editors, the award team and my fellow blog participants.

Jon 11:08 PM  

Wow, great list!

Is there any way to get AcrossLite Versions of the non-NYT puzzles? I'm a Sun subscriber, but most of those older puzzles aren't on the cruciverb archive. Same thing with the PI puzzle, the Newsday puzzle, the CrosSynergy puzzle, and the LA Times puzzles. Any advice for a relative crossword newbie who wants to try all these highlights? Any help is greatly appreciated...Thanks!

Jon 11:09 PM  

Oh, and, of course: Congratulations to all the award winners! (And thanks to the award givers, for their work!)

PuzzleGirl 11:12 PM  

Yes, you two did a great job with this. And, Andrea, the name of the award is perfect.

Jon, links to other puzzles can be found in Rex's sidebar under "The Country's Other Puzzles."

mac 11:27 PM  

Congratulations to all these people who bring us such joy day after day, week after week. And what an effort to keep track of all the different puzzles, wow Rex and Orange! I do 3 - 5 of them most days now, especially the ones you two and Andrea point out to us in the blog and comments, which may explain that I just noticed, in one of my stacks of books still to be read, Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake"....

Jon 11:46 PM  

Thanks, @PuzzleGirl. But my question referred to the specific puzzles cited in the post. The puzzle pointer links only have limited archives for some of the puzzles. Are there any other locations with more complete archives? Thanks!

mellocat 12:40 AM  

Wow, many thanks! (What a coincidence my two have the same grid -- I'll have try try that one again.) This must take an incredible amount of work to put together, thanks for doing it and for all your blogging throughout the year. It's great to have so much feedback on what people do and don't like when solving.

Anonymous 2:53 AM  

Yay! Very cool write up of all amazing puzzles. I'm happy to be published in the same NEWSPAPER that these guys have been published in. I tried my best with my Hollywood Blvd. puzzle. Next year!!!

--Caleb M.

Anonymous 10:39 AM  

Jon --

You can find all the old New York Sun puzzles at this link.

pauer 1:28 PM  

Wow. Thanks. I don't know what to say. How about I stick to anecdotes so I don't get all choked up?

Dollar Puzzle Answer Grid
The dollar bill puzzle started as a doodle in my notebook; it was just a rectangle with the word ONE in the center and in each corner. I forgot about it for months, but when I spotted it again it reminded me of Mike S's excellent pool-table-shaped POCKET rebus puzzle. "Ah, the Times has run a rectangular grid in the past," I thought. It had many iterations, including a Sunday-sized treatment with a giant ONE made of black squares in the middle, and I tried like hell to get BSA and AMA out of the grid since THEUNITEDSTATESOFAMERICA was the main theme entry, but nobody seemed to notice or care. I ended up ditching the central ONE, too. This one certainly got more attention than anything else I wrote last year. I'll be doing a TEN in 2019, so mark your calendars now.

The puzzles I did with Francis H. and Frank L. were pretty out there, and I couldn't have done it without them. I'm very lucky to be able to work with the likes of them, as well as with people like my pal Tony O. and the vivacious Andrea C.M.(E.). Everyone I work with brings something truly unique to the table, and it sure has taught me a lot.

One near and dear to my heart was a Sunday puzzle I did with Tony, called "Forward Thinking"
Answer Grid
which Will was nice enough to run during the ACPT last year. That was sweet.

Congrats to all the constructors, thanks to all the editors, and long live all the solvers.

Patrick B2

Anonymous 1:44 PM  

First, to echo others, you two are doing a great job with these awards, so thank you on behalf of all crossword fans.

Great choices - how do you even pick between some of these puzzles and some that didn't make it?(Caleb's Hollywood puzzle for example was fantastic). Maybe a little background on how you decided to choose these puzzles would help.

Now for some violent agreements and some carping (which relates to my earlier request for some background):

- PB2 is brilliant and deserves the highest award. The three ring circus, the dollar bill and the squares away are absolutely the most spectacular puzzles I have seen in my thirty years of solving.

- PB1 is a genius veteran and he should just remove his name from being considered for these awards. That "Splits and Mergers" was a briliancy, as was his "Process of Elimination" puzzle (maybe in 2007, but I still remember the leftovers!).

- Not sure about the themeless awards though. I remember so many other toughies that were more crunchy and memorable than the multiple KTraceys.

- LIES puzzle was one of the worst I have seen, so a dishonorable mention seems right. Also, it sounds like you are honoring Shortz for his cluing and not the constructor?

- Thanks for pointing us to some fabulous non-NYT puzzles we may have missed. But did I miss something else: that Rex has only focused on NYT puzzles and has gone on to award prizes to puzzles that we cannot discuss on this forum? :-)

Overall, great job to all, the constructors in particular!


Orange 2:04 PM  

@JohnG, this blog is a busy enough place with in-depth coverage of just the NYT puzzle, isn't it? My blog covers all those other puzzles too—more puzzles, yes, but a shorter write-up of each one. I love the NYT crossword, but there's a whole world of great puzzles out there that appear in other venues.

As for our methodology, throughout the year we each saved our favorite puzzles in various categories. In January, I sent Rex my favorites in each category. In response, he mentioned his choices and suggested a ranking of the top three to merge the two lists. And I almost always agreed completely with his 1-2-3 ranking.

Inevitably, once people start commenting with shout-outs to their favorites, we note other puzzles we wish we'd honored—but every Oryx winner is a worthy one. Maybe we'll follow up with a "People's Choice Awards" branch of the Oryx Awards.

hazel 3:52 PM  

Just another thank you for doing what you do to make puzzles more enjoyable to solve.

Looking forward to tackling these puzzles in the coming days/weeks....

foodie 11:16 PM  

Congratulations to the winners, and to the Oryx committee! Amazing work, and I LOVE the pithy descriptions of the winning puzzles. I'm certain that for most people, they would not be easy to compose. But then Orange and Rex are not most people.

If I recall correctly, Andrea brilliantly came up with Oryx following a blog discussion where we spoke of ORange-REX and then of "Orexin". Orexin is a natural chemical in the brain that enhances appetite (same word origin as anorexia for lack of such). It is also thought to play a role in addiction. Given how I feel about puzzles, I love the additional connotations that this award name has for me--- appetizing, addictive!

It was also a great pleasure to watch through this blog how Andrea took various loose strands and evolved them into an inspired name. Genius!

@pauer, thank you for the description of another creative process! Getting a glimpse behind the scenes is a real treat.

Anonymous 12:31 AM  

I didn't know that "naming consultant" was an occupation...Seems to me that someone who can come up with "oryx" could come up with a zippier title for this trade.

Anonymous 3:12 AM  

@anonymous 12:31 am
They called me a "naming consultant" not me!
I went thru a phase where I tried out all sorts of names for a namer but I settled on "Namer".
I like the simplicity, the biblical overtones and the sheer chutzpah!

It took me 5 years to come up with ACME Naming for my company, it's a joke within a joke within a joke, but too tired to explain at the moment...

And as you can well imagine, at one point my company name was going to be "Too Clever by Half"
(it was) and another time "Name Dropper" which I'm saving for my one woman show!

Plus, since I always forget to charge $ it's more a pre-occupation than an occupation...

But what I really want to do is direct....I mean, construct!

So I'll just take your comment as a compliment, tho I can clearly see it was not meant as one!

I just feel like I too won a prize when I begged them to let me rename the awards and they allowed me to take a stab.
When I first floated "Oryx" Rex responded, "I'm not hating it"
(or words to that effect).
High praise indeed!

Orange 9:31 AM  

"Oryx" is definitely more mellifluous than "ACCA," which sounds like someone's coughing up a loogie.

hazel 3:25 PM  

Maybe @anonymous 12;31 was a Cardinals fan - and was a little bitter about the outcome.

I think Oryx rocks as a name!

Anonymous 3:39 PM  

No WSJ puzzles ? Why not?

Orange 4:43 PM  

@Tom H, the WSJ puzzles are uniformly good, but none of last year's batch happened to hit that "Wow!" sweet spot for me. There were more than 250 Sunday-sized puzzles in the running (NYT, syndicated LA Times, Merl Reagle, WSJ, Boston Globe) for just three slots.

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