Analysis | Solution to Evan Birnholz’s April 14 crossword, ‘Boxed In’

Another year, another American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT). Your 2024 champion is Paolo Pasco, whom you might remember as the first of my guest constructors while I went on paternity leave in the fall. He came oh so close to winning it last year, so it was only fitting that he break through as this year’s winner. He even told me that he “panic-solved” (in his words) my “Playing the Hits” puzzle not long before he went up onstage to tackle the championship puzzle. If this helped him conquer the ACPT even a little bit, then I feel I’ve done something good for the world. Well done, Paolo!

I finished in 42nd place, but with a mistake. In fact it was the same exact error that bit me last year — I left a blank square by accident in Puzzle 6. I think what’s happened now two years in a row is that I get so amped up from finishing the challenging Puzzle 5 successfully that I let my guard down for the next puzzle, which is always much easier. Without the blank square I’d have finished in 24th, which still was not enough to make the B division finals (this year I’d have needed to finish 15th or higher to make it). Then again, I was operating with literally the world’s greatest excuse for why I wouldn’t solve well at all: being a new dad! Elliot came with us to the Stamford Marriott, and the sleep I got on Friday night was … not good, to say the least. Even with that added difficulty, I still had only one mistake for the whole tournament, so I should probably consider myself lucky I didn’t have several more. The tournament was still a blast and, of course, my son was the real star of the weekend. We brought Elliot into the lobby on Saturday evening, and just about everyone within 10 meters of his orbit came up to say hello and show him their best smiles. A few friends suggested that I should have entered the Pairs division with Elliot and then used him to distract everyone else. I think this strategy would have worked brilliantly and no one would have been mad about it. He’s too adorable.

So let’s do the ACPT next year again, shall we? In the meantime, you can order the set of ACPT puzzles for solving at home, and you can start planning for some other crossword tournaments on the horizon. There’s Westwords in Berkeley, Calif., on June 23, Lollapuzzoola in New York City on Aug. 24, and the Midwest Crossword Tournament in Chicago on Oct. 5.

Today’s puzzle will look unusual immediately upon seeing the grid. There are five sets of black squares that create enclosed boxes in 3×3 sections, with a single white square in the middle of each box. In addition, if you solved the puzzle in print, you’ll notice that the grid featured gray squares rather than black ones, though they were regular black squares in the online version. Another odd feature is that several answers in the puzzle don’t seem to fit their clues. 38A: [Gives up] is … PAC? 17D: [One predicting disaster] is … DOO? These don’t look right, but note that both answers run perpendicular to the enclosed box in the upper-left corner.

You’ll get your first hint to the theme at 23A: [Confined, like five letters in this puzzle that spell an apt word] which is TRAPPED. So those five isolated white squares contain letters, but the bigger hint is at the bottom of the grid, with an especially long clue at 122A: [Portal represented 20 times in this puzzle that lets you in and out of a confined space (Note: These special letters, reading left to right, row by row, will produce an apt four-word phrase)]. That answer is DOORWAY. The idea is that you have to create passages in and out of the enclosed boxes to make sense of ten clues in this puzzle. How do you do that? By finding the correct letters hidden inside 20 black squares (or gray squares, for print solvers) and in the five isolated white squares.

  • 38A: [Gives up] is PACKS IT IN. It starts with PAC at 38A, continues through the enclosed box with K-S-I, and ends with TIN at 39A, which has a normal clue of its own ([Shortest element]). The last three or four letters of these theme answers are all regular words with standard clues, so you’ll have to spot how the word exiting the box is connected to the word entering it on the opposite side.
  • Crossing PACKS IT IN at 17D: [One predicting disaster] is DOOMSAYER. It starts with DOO at 17D, continues through the box with M-S-A, and ends with YER at 50D. The intersection of these two theme answers — the isolated square in the middle of the box — is an S.
  • 40A: [Units of exposure to X-rays] is ROENTGENS. A potentially tough word if you don’t know it — it’s named after the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen — but there is a way to make it easier to figure it out without needing to look it up. We’ll come back to this.
  • Crossing ROENTGENS at 13D: [Weapons and equipment in the “Medal of Honor” video game franchise, say] is COMBAT GEAR. The isolated square here is a T.
  • 72A: [Not intimidated] is UNDAUNTED.
  • Crossing UNDAUNTED at 45D: [Looked upon with resentment] is BEGRUDGED. The isolated square here is a U.
  • 102A: [Parsnips, turnips, etc.] is ROOT CROPS.
  • Crossing ROOT CROPS at 76D: [Perfect, just perfect] is IMPECCABLE. The isolated square here is a C.
  • 104A: [Second leg of the Triple Crown] is PREAKNESS.
  • Crossing PREAKNESS at 80D: [Loser to Barack Obama in a 2004 Senate race] is ALAN KEYES. The isolated square here is a K.

The isolated squares inside the boxes spell STUCK. That’s the apt five-letter word referenced in the clue for TRAPPED 23A.

Now, go back to the clue for DOORWAY at 122A. It said “These special letters, reading left to right, row by row, will produce an apt four-word phrase.” The more theme answers you uncover, the more doorway letters you’ll reveal. When you’ve got enough of them, you can maybe begin to predict what the final four-word phrase is and then fill in any gaps with tougher answers like ROENTGENS.

The secret doorway letters, when you read them row by row in the puzzle, spell MAKING A GRAND ENTRANCE.

Even though the grid features letters hidden by darker squares, this crossword was not inspired by the total solar eclipse earlier week. I don’t think it had any direct inspiration other than just wanting to break a typical crossword convention and see what I could do with enclosed spaces. What I found especially difficult was finding a set of answers that could accommodate both the meta answers and real words outside of the boxes. The -NTG- string crossing the -ATG- string in the upper-right box gave me a lot of trouble until I found COMBAT GEAR with its helpful COMB and EAR words on the outside.

The final four-word meta answer MAKING A GRAND ENTRANCE is also the reason this puzzle was printed in gray squares rather than black ones. 20 secret letters is a lot to write inside black squares, and the boxes are spread somewhat far apart from each other, making the final answer hard enough to read already. I figured that making the squares a lighter shade would help you see the hidden letters more easily. Don’t expect to see gray squares again soon, though; I wouldn’t want to tip you off early about hidden letters all the time.

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