Letter Game – The New York Times

Written by Javed Iqbal

SUNDAY PUZZLE — This is one of those Sunday grids where reading Will Shortz’s printed introduction before solving affects the experience. He writes: “Tina Labadie lives in London, Ontario. This is her first New York Times crossword puzzle. It has one of my favorite types of themes – one that offers many different ‘ahas’. The example of 118-Across, at the bottom of the puzzle, is a little different from the others, like the kicker of a joke. As a construction filler, 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 game, let alone a debut, and today’s slow burner of a theme does not disappoint. I finally got to those “ahas,” but not before several “uh-oh” moments where I worried I was missing something. A little tension makes the solution even better.

47A. Clues like today’s – “WW In helmet, casual” – outnumber a clue like “Stereotypical wear for paranoid”, which can also define this entry 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 ___” could solve a few things: “Docs” or “apps” are possible, as well as the correct entry, MAPS. This is a tool I often use to double-check hard geography trivia — today I drew a total blank on IBADAN, Nigeria’s third largest cityand the Gulf of SIDRA.

101A. This is a slightly nebulous clue. “Crystal clear” made me think of something easy to understand before I thought of something actually transparent, or LIMPID, like a still pool. It’s such a soothing word, isn’t it? Every possible definition — an even mood, the clear tone of an instrument — is neutral and relaxed.

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

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

61D. This is one of several tracks in the fill that I thought might be in the theme set. “They’re full of X’s” could refer to the letter X, the Roman numeral 10, or possibly a very lucrative treasure map. I didn’t expect BALLOTS, which can actually be marked with a cross. (That seems risky though.)

This is another theme of paired entries — we’ve seen a few of these lately, and they add a nice layer of deduction to the solution, 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 good examples of “Letterplay”, as the puzzle’s title indicates. There’s also a neat numerical component that I didn’t notice until I went through things a second time.

You will probably run into and solve themed entries in random order – I certainly did. The first one that I knew for sure was at 42-Across, “Beer named after a founder” which is SAM ADAMS and which I assumed was just normal, harmless. This clue happens to be pretty close to its paired entry, which is 52-Across: “DST start time … or a hint for 42-Across.” Nothing struck me there. I came to 90-Across, “Farm Kids’ Club … or a tip for 97-Across,” and thought it must be “4-H.” If the entry hadn’t been five letters long, I probably would have tried HHHH; instead, I sat on it for a bit and tried 97-Across, “Secretive”. Due to some crossing letters, I got this entry right: HUSH-HUSH. Or, I realized, QUIET QUIET — the four H’s must mean something.

Due to the location of OAHU, QUIT, and JACUZZI, I figured out 27-Across next. “Visitors to a website, in analytics lingo,” are UNIQUE USERS. Its companion clue is at 71-Across, “23rd in a series … or a hint to 27-Across.” We are dealing with “Letterplay”, so the series that comes to mind is obviously alphabetical, but what does “W” (the 23rd letter) has to do with the post at 27-Across? Aha — UNIQUE USER contains two U’s or a DOUBLE U.

DOUBLE U got me tuned to how to answer 68-Across: “Top credit rating … or a hint to 25-Across.” This credit rating (for corporate bonds) is AAA or TRIPLE A. What does that have to do with 25-Across, “Right?” Thanks, cruiser! This one only made sense when I reverse engineered it; a line that is “not true” or straight can be ONET ONEN ONEANGLE. There are your TRIPLE A’s.

So what about 90-Across? “Quadruple” does not fit; the entry is FOUR H. And what about 52-Across, the “DST start time …”? It is TWO AM, referring to the TWO “AM” in SIS A.DISp.

There are two more examples – an excellent pair of puns at 89- and 115-Across and a variation at 54- and 118-Across – that set the limits of the numerical sequence. (It is almost at least a sequence. It lacks “one” or “single” and instead becomes ZERO – TWO – DOUBLE – TRIPLE – FOUR – FIVE.) The ZERO input is a coup d’état. 54-Across, “Weightlessness … or a hint to 118-Across,” is ZERO G. 118-Across is “Baseball announcer’s call on a home run.” What do they say? “Is it from here?” In this case, it is one more interesting statementthat with ZERO G’s reads, OIN OIN ONE.

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Javed Iqbal

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