Letterplay – The New York Times

SUNDAY PUZZLE — This is one of those Sunday grids where reading Will Shortz’s print introduction before solving affects the experience. He writes: “Mother Labadie lives in London, Ontario. This is her first New York Times crossword. It has one of my favorite kinds of themes — one offering 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 fillip, every letter in the alphabet is used at least once in the completed grid.”

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

47A. Clues like today’s — “WW I helmet, informally” — outnumber a clue like “Stereotypical wear for the 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 city, and the Gulf of SIDRA.

101A. This is a slightly foggy clue. “Crystal-clear” made me think of something easily understood before I thought of something actually transparent, or LIMPID, like a tranquil pool. This is such a calming word, isn’t it? Every possible definition — an even-keeled mood, the clear tone of an instrument — is neutral and relaxed.

3D. I’m impressed by anyone who gets a clue like this straight away; I needed crosses. The “Jazz singer born Eunice Kathleen Waymon” is NINA SIMONE, who chose her own alias, when she started out 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 clues in the fill that I thought could be in the theme set. “They’re filled with X’s” could refer to the letter X, the Roman number 10 or, possibly, a very lucrative treasure map. I wasn’t expecting BALLOTS, which can, indeed, be marked off with crosses. (It seems risky, though.)

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

You will probably run into, and solve, theme entries in random order — I certainly did. The first one that I knew for sure was at 42-Across, “Beer named for a founding father,” which is SAM ADAMS and which I assumed was just a normal, innocuous fill. This clue happens to be quite near its paired entry, which is 52-Across: “DST starting time … or a hint to 42-Across.” Nothing struck me there. I got to 90-Across, “Club for farm kids … or a hint to 97-Across,” and figured it had to be “4-H.” If the entry hadn’t been five letters long, I’d have probably tried HHHH; instead, I sat on it for a bit and tried 97-Across, “Secretive.” Because of some crossing letters, I got this entry right: HUSH-HUSH. Or, I realized, HUSH-HUSH — those four H’s must mean something.

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

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

So what about 90-Across? “Quadruple” doesn’t fit; the entry is FOUR H. And what about 52-Across, that “DST starting time …”? That’s TWO AM, referring to the TWO “AM”s in SA.M A.DA.MS.

There are two more examples — one excellent pair of puns at 89- and 115-Across and a variation at 54- and 118-Across — that make the limits of the numerical sequence. (It’s almost a sequence, anyway. It’s missing “one,” or “single,” and instead goes ZERO — TWO — DOUBLE — TRIPLE — FOUR — FIVE.) That ZERO entry is a coup de grâce. 54-Across, “Weightlessness … or a hint to 118-Across,” is ZERO G. 118-Across is “Baseball announcer’s call on a home run.” What’s that they say? “It’s outta here?” In this case, it’s a more suspenseful statement, that, with ZERO G’s, reads, OIN OIN ONE.

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