*Brawl just about stops overtime in Denver? (6)

How much information does a definition need to convey, and how far does a question mark go toward allowing it to stretch? For me, the two main considerations are the clarity of the wordplay and how common the intended meaning is. I think some might argue that there’s a missing “e.g.,” here to go with “Denver,” but I think the ? works as intended in telling you that it’s not your standard Denver, and if you get that far (and eat breakfast out every now and again) you’ll probably crack (the egg) of this clue: O(MELE[-e])T. I also loved 5D, Match made in beer garden, going head over heels (5), because it takes two romantic bits–“match” and “head over heels”–and uses them in another sense, once as an indicator and once as a definition: bEER GArden<. And of course, I will continue to advocate for the type of wordplay seen in13D, Chargrilled bit of nutmeg added to dressing (5). “Chargrill” may be a compound word, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still address each part separately, and the flavorful surface really sells it: RA(N)CH*. I think that’s probably better than having to put some chopped char (and nutmeg) in a dressing, but I’m not a gourmand.

*Able to strike without a charge (9)

Prefix shenanigans are fun; their extreme version, the “false” prefix, is my favorite type of flat in the National Puzzle League, which involves basically pretending that a word means something else by applying the “rules” of something like a prefix to it. This works like gangbusters for cryptics, which have rules, but rules that are made to be broken in the search of fun. In this case, “without a charge” sounds as if we’re talking about two jousters, but it’s actually the definition–a negative “un-” applied to a more familiar phrase. If you can get that far, this might help with the definition too, a neatly loose way of describing the main type of group that does this (though there are others, of course, who can). Is this sounding familiar yet? If so, welcome to the UN-IONIZED family. A quick nod as well to the playful absurdity of Took something from secondhand video center: Hallway Runners (4,5). No such film (as far as I can Bing) exists, but I have zero problem with that. This might be better if it used only things that existed in the world, but because there could be a sort of modern day Office Space meets Labyrinth film by this name, it works in terms of surface sense and perhaps brings a chuckle with it: USED+D+RUGS. “Video center” is particularly delightful, and helps to break this one up a bit more than along 4/5 lines, which some people (not me) take issue with.

  • Bob Weisz, Tales from the Cryptic #000000011: “Secondhand Video Center,” 2/25/23

*Might be in debt in Puerto Rico (5)

Long-time crossword solvers may be quick to spot the straight definitions, but I think a clue like this goes a long way to trip them up. Sure, you may instantly grok that “Puerto Rico” probably isn’t going to be the definition, especially without an “e.g.” or something. But then is the definition “Might” or “Might be”? That’s where going back to the cryptic part helps; if you suspect Puerto Rico is doing something else here, and shorten it to PR, you can work to possible definitions or see how you might get three more letters to cooperate with that. In this case, there’s an “in” before PR, suggesting you might put something into those, and from there, it’s just one more step to realizing that “be in debt” might fit: P(OWE)R. Also, a word of appreciation for Just switching direction before a military cabal (5). You may not be instantly familiar with the definition, but the clue pretty much gives you four of the five letters outright, and tells you how to get the fifth with a “switching direction” indicator that implies you’ll take an N, E, W, or S and swap it to a different one. Just so: JU{s/N}T+A. The less likely your audience is to know a word, the kinder this kind of cluing is, especially when the surface remains sensical, as it does here. And honestly, the stuff hidden in plain sight can sometimes be hardest to see!

  • Bob Weisz, “Odd Candy,” Tales from the Cryptic #000000010, 2/22/23

*Trick where Democrat switches to Republican party (9)

At the end of the day, even if you have the parse bang-on, you’ve still got to actually find the words in question, and the smoothness of the transition from “trick” to “party”–especially in this surface–kept me second-guessing myself. That’s the misdirection kind of trick that cryptics are built on: if this part doesn’t get you, maybe this part will, though that also goes in reverse–if you’re stuck here, maybe you’ll find an entrance over there. So in the end, though I couldn’t think of the word for “party,” running through definitions for “trick” that had a D in them finally got me to {d/R}ECEPTION. Remember, there’s no wrong way to solve a cryptic, but there are many wrong ways to be a politician. Speaking of that word, I was utterly fooled by Embark on tanker, due to work (9), which is actually just an anagram, but one I never even started looking for: UNDERTAKE* (*tanker due). That’s one way to trick a solver!

I stripped out of undies to pose for these! (5)

This isn’t actually an &lit, because “for these” doesn’t serve any sort of cryptic purpose, but that’s why someone coined the term “sesquilit,” because surfaces like this are still a great deal of fun. I’ve found that &lit clues can sometimes get very strained or stretchy to make everything work, but a sesquilit doesn’t have that problem–they’re often a bit smoother and just plain fun all around. If you’re taking NUDES* (*und[-i]es), you would naturally have to strip, and that’s a convenient way to remove an I from just the right type of underwear before just the right type of anagram indicator in “pose.” 10/10, no notes, and the same goes for this simplistic looking killer, Category of green salad (5), which is another natural anagram getting to GENRE* (*green). It only looks innocuous, but that mix of greens has a real satisfying crunch to it.

*Made a thread of rough fabric to trap alien (7)

The best kinds of cryptics are those in which you forget for a moment that you’re solving, and are content to just go along for the ride. I’m invested in finding out more about this extraterrestrial-trapping web that the setter has been designing, and so I’m not thinking about whether the definition is “Made” “Made a thread” or “alien.” And when I do finally get to unraveling the silkiness of what’s been set, it takes a while to recognize the lively definition: TWE(ET)ED. “Rough fabric” is about as basic a definition as you can get, and the abbreviation for “alien” is instantly recognizable to any crossword solver, but context matters, and in an elevated clue like this one, they’re not as easily spotted–and that’s the trick. This is only a 7×7 mini, but more examples abound: Billboard song section is not helpful (7) is particularly great, with the misdirect of Billboard’s Top 100 (and/or various genres) masking the fact that the capitalization is only because it’s the first word in the sentence, yielding AD+VERSE. Another musical example comes from A boring Spin editor supplied a reference? (7), which uses the magazine title as an indicator: A+LLUD<+ED. These pieces are so much stronger as a whole, where “bored” might be mistaken as a container indicator, where “spin” might be an anagram,” where the definition might sneakily end up being “A.” Whether there are are eight clues in your puzzle or eight words, make the most of them as this one does!

This jar’s opening in the morning! (3)

I’ve said before that I make a lot of leeway for &lit clues, but there’s nothing wrong with a sesquilit either, where the whole thing’s a definition, but not quite cryptic (or vice versa). Which of the two this one is depends on what you think “this” is doing in the clue, but it hardly matters, because the whole thing’s pretty elegant anyway, even if you can just as well open this kind of J+AM jar in the evening. My litmus test tends to be, “Does it make sense? Is it inferable?” Both of those hold true here, so I like it. I’m also a fan of the clever Dwayne Johnson’s 1996 action movie (3,4) because I had to pause for a moment and try to remember if he was actually in movies that early (The Scorpion King was 2002) before slapping myself for forgetting about this Nic Cage/Sean Connery classic, THE ROCK. Although I am a bit fearful now that this clue has somehow willed a remake–with Johnson taking the lead role and Cage perhaps playing the Connery part–into existence. But hey, that’s the charm of cryptics: they tell stories and we can either follow them or not.

  • Bob Weisz, “Old Bald Weirdo,” Tales from the Cryptic #0000006, 2/8/23

*That’s all god is to me…. hollow emotion (4)

OK, so there are a bunch of great clues in this grid that I can’t share with you, because it’s a variety puzzle and uh-oh, the chat robot Buttsbot randomly changed some of their syllables to “butt.” But (heh-heh) among the clues that were unaffected, I appreciate that these two didn’t hold back on the trickery and still had these gems. The big thing going on here are the unabashedly rude parse breaks and deceptive punctuation, which I love, because I feel like some veteran solvers–or computer-learning AI–look for obvious patterns and just break the clue instantly. Much harder (and interesting) to not be able to lean on that here, hence “is to me” as a sneaky definition, yielding AM+E[-motio]N. If that doesn’t line up with the definition, try adding a comma: “That’s all, god,” as in, “I’m done praying now, thanks.” Finds like that are what keep me keeping on. That deception isn’t above potty humor either, which, if ever there was a place for it–that clue was 2D, which brings me to The posterior with a back-up of number two? This’ll clean out your butt (5). (Oh yeah, I should probably mention that not all “butt” instances in the puzzle were unnatural ones in need of syllabic replacement!) I should’ve seen “number two” coming as a sideways cross-reference, but it’s just such a fun find to get E+NEMA< out of AMEN. I’ll close with a particularly tricky demonstration of all this: Place where bear claws are sold (not back home) (3), which is a deletion of a reversal, with the split happening right in the middle of “are sold” to take us away from the pastry sense: PAW[-ned<]. Devious and delicious, just the way I like ’em. As a bonus, here’s the video this inspired us to all watch on stream:

*Skyler, to Jesse Pinkman: “Cook meth, sir,” taking tip from Walter (3, 5)

If you like this clue, you should check out the 12/20/22 Independent grid that filled an entire puzzle with Breaking Bad content. At any rate, this style is very compelling: I keep saying that cryptic surfaces should be telling stories, and it can sometimes help to reference pop cultural ones because it gives you a bit of a shorthand with which to present them. This clue doesn’t tell you, for instance, who these proper names are, or their relationship (that’s actually the definition here); it trusts that it’ll make sense to those who watched this show about two desperate, would-be meth cooks. I can’t say how this plays out to someone who doesn’t know the show–probably not that well–but that’s likely true for any proper name clue, or like me when confronted with a geography clue, so I’ll take this Albuquerque-set show’s MRS. (W)HITE* any day and just note the fortuitous split in “cook” and “meth, sir.” For a lighter example of the same, see Fresh ramen incorporating hint of enoki is more bitter (6), which, even if you’ve never eaten ramen and don’t know how true this clue is (very), you can probably unpack as M(E)ANER, and again, what a great split in “fresh” and “ramen.” Keeping those indicators true to the surface really goes a long way in keeping things, well, fresh!

(PS. This is a variety puzzle that transforms more than 16 entries before entry in the grid. I always find these to be the most approachable form of variety cryptic because the actual clues are standard, so as long as you’re not coulrophobic, I recommend it.)

*Star to get rid of retreat, reportedly (5)

As terrible as I am at phonetic clues, I love them, especially ones that take two surprising synonyms and use them to make a fresh word. “Get rid of” and “retreat” sounds as if you’re someone really rich–rich enough to be reported on, I guess–offloading one of your six or seven getaways for, I dunno, a tax write-off? To reinvest in two or three more? Surprise! We’re actually looking at the words “sell” and “ebb,” (I guess Kander was busy), which gives us CELEB /sell ebb/. One of the most interesting things about this clue for me is that star isn’t being disguised: the surface presents it to us as a human entity, and then it actually winds up being one, which would be great if the solver didn’t try to outthink the constructor and look to the skies instead. Very much a Vizzini moment, and I think some of the best clues come from a setter accounting for what they suspect their victims–er, I mean solvers–will do. Not knowing which parts of a clue like Sea flows back around cool legendary hero (8) can actually be trusted heightens the fun of cracking it, because while SEA ends up being taken as is, it might just as easily have been COOL; A(CHILL)ES<. And then there’s down-clue gems like At first, Arsenio Hall brought up God (5), where you can refer to what sounds like a plausible stand-up routine, giving solvers all the letters they need, but still make it tough because Arsenio Hall seems so natural and hard to split up: A+LLAH<.