CHAMPAIGN — You’ll be hard-pressed to find a clue more satisfying — or meta — than 63-across on Tuesday’s New York Times crossword.
The prompt: “The constructors of this puzzle, e.g.” The answer: “TRIO.”
Why does it work? Because three University of Illinois juniors were the latest crossword constructors to grace the Gray Lady.
Their 66-clue grid isn’t a one-off project, either. It’s a labor of love that represents three years of college camaraderie, with plenty of personal flair woven into the puzzle.
Nugent Hall is where Jackson Janes and Jack Joshi, both of Chicago, first met Adam Aaronson, in the first week of their freshman year.
All three were lifelong puzzlers, but Aaronson had his own niche: He was really into crosswords, and had made some of his own.
“I was never really into them until the summer before senior year of high school, when I was just solving Chicago Tribune puzzles with my family and thought, ‘I should’ve been doing this for my whole life. How did I just get into this?’” Aaronson said.
He got Janes and Joshi to jump on the bandwagon, and it quickly became a glue for their budding friendship. They’d complete the Times crossword “basically every day together,” Aaronson said, displaying the puzzles on dorm projectors and solving away.
“It’s an optimization problem, and that relates to what I’m really interested in,” said Joshi, who studies aerospace engineering and computer science. “Filling the grid and coming up with themed entries falls right into that aspect of what I enjoy.”
The trio even kept up a group chat dedicated to their crossword fandom, discussing their favorite entries and themes of the week.
Aaronson found his own success constructing the word puzzles, submitting plenty of entries for the New York Times to judge. He began sending in his grids right around the beginning of 2019 — and notched his first publication in the Jan. 4, 2020, edition.
The first semester of sophomore year, the three began brainstorming for a combined crossword of their imaginations.
Tuesday’s grid theme began from a stray note in Aaronson’s phone, with two words: “BANANAGRAMS,” a popular word game, and “TOMATO METER,” the rating system on film-review website Rotten Tomatoes.
So, fruit followed by a unit of measurement. Wanting four themed entries, they brought in the big guns: OneLook, a dictionary search engine.
Through the site, the group found “FIG NEWTONS” and “LEMON BARS” to round out their peculiar set. “Newtons” are units of force; “bars” are units of atmospheric pressure.
“This is an awfully tight theme set, meaning that I can’t imagine there are many more phrases that follow the same constraint,” wrote Rachel Fabi, the Times’ crossword columnist. “To be honest, I’m amazed our constructors found this many possible entries to begin with!”
The process from submission to publication took far longer than Janes expected.
“It’s not like we just got together one night and cranked it out; it was a multi-week thing of finding the themed answers and constructing the grid, making the clues,” Janes said. “Someone could solve it in five to 10 minutes; it took way longer than that to actually make it.”
The troupe submitted their completed crossword to the Times in November 2020. Their creation was finally approved in February 2021 — Joshi got the news on his birthday, in a call from Aaronson and Janes.
“It’s pretty amazing we got accepted,” Joshi said. On average, the paper gets 150 to 200 crossword submissions each week.
And now, nearly a year later, millions of solvers got to take their clues to task.
“The final product is really clean, and I think our personalities shine through in it,” Aaronson said. “You can kind of tell three college guys made it because it’s fun and modern.”
There’s 61-across: “__-Town (Windy City).” The answer is “CHI,” referencing the home of Janes and Joshi (Aaronson’s from Deerfield, a 45-minute drive north).
For a modern spin, try 1-down: “Memes with captions like ‘I can has cheezburger?’” The seven-letter answer: “LOLCATS.”
But their crowning achievements, by their standards, were the themed entries and the self-referencing clue. The latter was meant as a joke; the trio was stunned to see it make it through.
With Tuesday’s edition, Aaronson now has 10 New York Times crosswords to his name. Seeing the work in print was “surreal the first time, and it’s still surreal the 10th time.”
“It’s amazing to realize probably millions of people are solving the humble creation from our dorm room last year,” he said. “It’ll touch a small part of the lives of so many people.”
Newcomer constructor Joshi has “fallen in love” with the format. He plans to keep the submission momentum going and perhaps get an individual puzzle published one day.
After months of theme talk, grid construction and clue-writing, and even longer spent waiting, the end product couldn’t be more satisfying for the word-wise buddies.
“It’s cool we all met, we all have this shared interest, and now it’s all together in one place for everyone to see,” Janes said.