It’s All on the Table

SUNDAY PUZZLE — This is one for the books. Greg Slovacek is a software engineer from San Francisco; this is his first published crossword. He finds puzzlemaking similar, in a way, to programming — both involve problem-solving within constraints — and he enjoys puzzles that have layers for a solver to uncover.

This puzzle comes with a bit of advice, though you need to check the title page of the online version to see it.

A note on Texas hold ’em (useful for completing this puzzle): Players seek to combine one or more of the cards they hold with cards laid out on the table to make the best possible five-card poker hand.

I dare say, I don’t know if missing that note is going to detract from the enjoyment of many solvers. I read it and worried about knowing nothing about poker, but the trick is so ingeniously concealed that I’d be surprised if the pros had an edge. You’ll have to tell me what insider touches I missed.

There’s a lot of great fill in this puzzle, but the theme is very well hidden — and, if you’re finding that you just can’t make a dent anywhere, you might need to take a peek at the next section for everything to add up.

1A. This is a spot that drove me a little crazy, even though the clue is straightforward: “Italian almond-flavored cookies.” It took a few bad crosses to move from “biscotti” to “amoretti,” because I ♥ cookies, and then an even closer look to get the right spelling: AMARETTI (I had “onnuals” at 3D, and I’m a gardener).

24A. This is a debut and struck me as funny at a second glance. Students who “Do OK, academically,” attain the average, or GET A C. This entry might also serve as a subliminal command for anyone sweating through this July weekend.

41A. Great groany pun: “Reason one might not go out for a long time?” refers to going lights-out, out to dreamland — so tough when you’re stricken with INSOMNIA.

108A. This is new trivia for the Times puzzle, and for me: We almost all grew up with MORTIMER as the “Original first name of Mickey Mouse,” were it not for Lillian Disney, who came up with M-I-C and so on.

101D. As a gardener, I’m reminded by “‘Purple’ and ‘Thai’ herbs” that it’s time to shear the flowers off your BASILS.

This is a model rebus, in my opinion, and the rules of entering the rebus should be fairly generous. There are two components in each rebus square that work together beautifully.

Look at the title of this puzzle — “It’s All on the Table” — and you’ll get the big picture: This grid is a poker table, with four players. There are three revealer entries that might help as you solve, at 131-Across and 39- and 42-Down. There are also 13 playing cards strategically concealed in this puzzle, a whole suit’s worth, though clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds are all represented.

My realization of the theme set dawned in one spot, and then two, and then all at once — as in, I thought those cards might be everywhere. It was 49-Down, “‘America’ singer, 1981,” that got things going, though I did think of David Bowie before getting a couple of crosses and figuring out NEIL DIAMOND, or NEIL ♦️. At 78-Across, which begins with that rebus square with the ♦️, is “Waters of the world, figuratively.” With the help of a couple of crosses again, I figured out 7 SEAS; that single rebus square includes 7 and ♦️, making it the seven of diamonds.

71-Across is also straightforward: “Control element in medical trials” has to be “placebo.” What card is that? PlACEbo sneaked up one me. That rebus square intersects with 63-Down, “Literature, theater, filmmaking and others,” which are “the arts,” or T ♥ TS. So that card is the ace of hearts.

Both of these rebus squares are in the center of the grid, and, at this point, I realized there were cards in the corners of the table, too. These took a while to sink in! I didn’t know 1-Down, “Pop culture sister site of the Onion,” which is AV ♣, or 12-Down, “Like a geocentric orbit in which the orbital period is more than 24 hours,” which is HIG ♥ H. But lots of other entries started coming to me — as 8-Down would say — “Aplenty,” or IN ♠ S.

As it turns out, each corner has one across entry that holds a pair: 22-Across, 28-Across, 112-Across and 123-Across. The clues for all of these are pretty tough, in my opinion, but there’s a lot of help in the crosses. I was particularly hornswoggled by 123-Across, “Some loungewear,” which solves to something that sounds so formal: SMOKING JACKETS (but made me think of Steve Martin and the rest of the SNL HOSTS at 96A, who do look comfortable). I noted that both face cards in this entry shared a suit — K♥ and J♥ — but thought no more of it until I got to the revealer entries.

At 39-Down, “123-Across’s holding that wins this puzzle’s game” solves to ROYAL FLUSH. At 42-Down, “Indicators on a clock … or one of four in this puzzle?” is MINUTE HAND. And — tauntingly placed at the very end of the across entries — we have 131-Across: “1998 Matt Damon film featuring this puzzle’s game,” or ROUNDERS, which explains the rules of “the Cadillac of poker,” and the entire layout of this puzzle, in about 10 seconds.

Those rebus squares in the center of the puzzle number five in total and form a diagonal line from 82-Down — “Fireplaces,” or ♥HS — up to 58-Across: “Works as a mixologist,” or TENDSBAR. Those are the “community cards” and include the ace, the 10 and the queen of hearts.

The pair of playing cards in each corner represents a player, holding a MINUTE HAND (I believe that “minute” here means small, as these hands are only two cards). And that ROYAL FLUSH refers to the lucky duck in the southeast, whose king and jack of hearts combine with three community cards to make a ROYAL FLUSH.

I’m sure that poker devotees had a ball here — I’m so far out of the loop that my “aha” moment prompted a memory of “Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” which is from the wrong movie entirely. I do love me a complex and well-disguised theme, though, and this one — with its slow reveal — is absolutely blue-chip.

My biggest surprise constructing this puzzle was that, as a software engineer, I did not write a custom program to help myself. Maybe I should have!

In the beginning, I found plenty of potential entries containing suits and ranks, and the deck felt stacked in my favor. But as I made choices deeper into construction and raised the stakes, I created more mind-bending constraints. Changing even one card could mean all bets were off, and my tools didn’t help much with multi-valued cells. While I found HEART, ACE, TEN, and KING easy to work with, the other values were much trickier. Was there no limit to how much work this would take? Still, the challenge was exhilarating, and I was all in. I made lots of my own low-tech aids, including tables of good and bad entry patterns I could consult to avoid playing with an unwinnable hand. Even so, I flushed a ton of grids in the process.

My favorite themers I wish could have worked in were F(ACE) BOOKSTAL (KING), GET (SEVEN), and ALIEN (QUEEN), but … they weren’t in the cards.

Thanks to Kevin Der, whose construction advice and persistent prodding helped me make this puzzle about as good as I possibly could, and to my wife, Jamie, who endured the late nights and inconvenient distractions while I obsessed over cracking this nut!

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Trying to get back to the puzzle page? Right here.

What did you think?