Letterplay – The New York Times

Letterplay - The New York Times

SUNDAY PUZZLE – This is one of those Sunday grids where reading Will Shortz’s introduction to solving affects the experience. He writes: “Tina Labadie lives in London, Ontario. This is her first New York Times crossword. It has one of my favorite types of themes – one with many different ‘ahas’. The example at 118-Across, at the bottom of the puzzle, is a little different from the others, like the kicker of a joke. As a construction fill, each letter of the alphabet is used at least once in the completed grid.

That kind of praise sets a high bar for any puzzle, let alone debut, and today’s slow-burner theme doesn’t disappoint. I finally got to those “ah-has,” but not before several “uh-oh” moments when I worried I was missing something. A little tension makes solving even better.

47A. Clues like today’s — “WW I helmet, casual” — trump a clue like “Stereotypical wear and tear for the paranoid,” which can also define this item, by 16 to 1 in the Times crossword. I still think of conspiracy fans when I see TIN HAT (or “The Wizard of Oz”)!

79A. “Google ___” can solve a few things: “Docs” or “apps” are possible, as well as the correct input, MAPS. This is a tool I often use to check hard geography trivia – today I drew IBADAN, the third largest city in Nigeria, and the Gulf of SIDRA completely blank.

101A. This is a slightly foggy clue. “Crystal clear” reminded me of something that was easy to understand before I thought of something really transparent or LIMPID, like a calm swimming pool. This is such a soothing word, isn’t it? Every possible definition – an even tuning, the clear tone of an instrument – is neutral and relaxed.

3D. I’m impressed by anyone who gets such a clue right away; I needed crosses. The “jazz singer born Eunice Kathleen Waymon” is NINA SIMONE, who chose her own alias when she started singing in bars to avoid getting into trouble with her mother.

19D. “Introductory Course” sounds academic, but it’s a culinary reference to SALADS.

61D. This is one of many clues in the fill that I thought might be in the theme set. “They are filled with X’s” could refer to the letter X, the Roman numeral 10 or, possibly, a very lucrative treasure map. I wasn’t expecting BALLOTS, which can indeed be marked with crosses. (It seems risky, though.)

This is another paired-entry theme – we’ve seen a few of these lately, and they add a nice layer of distraction to solving, even when the two entries are connected in the clues or in the digital puzzle presentation. There are six pairs in the theme set and they are all great examples of ‘Letterplay’, as the puzzle title implies. There’s also a neat numerical component that I didn’t notice until I went through things a second time.

You will likely encounter and solve themed items in random order – I certainly did. The first I knew for sure was on 42-Across, “Beer Named After a Founder,” which is SAM ADAMS and which I assumed was just a normal, harmless refill. This clue happens to be close to the paired entry, which is 52-Across: “DST start time…or a hint to 42-Across.” I didn’t notice anything. I got to 90-Across, “Farm Kids Club…or a hint at 97-Across”, and thought it must be “4-H”. If the input hadn’t been five letters long, I probably would have tried HHHH; instead I sat on it for a while and tried 97-Across, “Secretive.” Because of some intersecting letters, I got this entry right: HUSH-HUSH. Or, I realized, HUSH-HUSH – those four H’s must mean something.

The placement of OAHU, QUIT and JACUZZI resulted in 27-Across next. “Visitor to a website, in analytical jargon”, is UNIQUE USER. The accompanying clue is on 71-Across, “23rd in a series…or a hint at 27-Across.” We are dealing with “Letterplay”, so of course the series that comes to mind is alphabetical, but what does “W” (the 23rd letter) have to do with the listing on 27-Across? Aha — UNIQUE USER contains two Us, or a DOUBLE U.

DOUBLE You tuned me in on how to answer 68-Across: “Top credit rating…or a hint at 25-Across.” That credit rating (for corporate bonds) is AAA, or TRIPLE A. What could that have to do with 25-Across, “Isn’t it?” Thank you, cross! This one only made sense when I reverse engineered it; a line that is “not true”, or straight, could be: AT AN ANGLE. There are your TRIPLE A’s.

So what about 90-Across? “Quadruple” will not fit; the entry is FOUR H. And what about 52-Across, that “DST start time…”? That’s TWO AM, referring to the TWO “AM”s in SBEN ADVERTISEMENTBENs.

There are two more examples – an excellent pair of puns on 89- and 115-Across and a variation on 54- and 118-Across – that define the boundaries of the numerical range. (To be almost yet an order. It’s missing either “one” or “single”, and instead becomes ZERO – TWO – DOUBLE – TRIPLE – FOUR – FIVE.) That ZERO entry is a knockout blow. 54-Across, “Weightlessness…or a hint at 118-Across,” is ZERO G. 118-Across is “the baseball announcer’s call on a home run.” What do they say? “Is it out of here?” In this case it’s a more exciting statement, which, with ZERO G’s, reads: OIN OIN ONE.

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