Solution to Evan Birnholz’s Dec. 27 Post Magazine crossword, “5×5”

  • 25A: [Notable quintet (Row A)] is GREAT LAKES. The members of this quintet are Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.
  • 50A: [Notable quintet (Row B)] is SENSES. These are hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch.
  • 84A: [Notable quintet (Row C)] is FINGERS. These are the thumb, the index finger, the middle finger, the ring finger, and the pinkie.
  • 117A: [Notable quintet (Row D)] is OCEANS. These are the Arctic Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Southern Ocean.
  • 142A: [Notable quintet (Row E)] is SPICE GIRLS. Their names are Baby, Ginger, Posh, Scary, and Sporty.

These notable quintets are each going to apply in some way to the corresponding rows of the 5×5 grid, but we don’t yet know how. These few helper clues in the puzzle might get you started on the right track:

  • 75A / 86A: [With 86 Across, parts of 25 answers in this puzzle that must be used to fill the 5×5 grid] is FIRST / LETTERS.
  • 81A: [Parts of the 5×5 grid whose corresponding 93 Across will lead you to the meta answer] is COLUMNS.
  • 93A: [Important parts of many a metapuzzle] is CLUES.

We know that we need to fill the 5×5 grid with single letters, specifically the first letters of 25 different answers. But which ones? You might be tempted to try, for example, the first letters of the Great Lakes and HOMES is a well-known acronym for them, which would fit nicely into one of the 5×5 rows. But the other quintets don’t have neatly ordered acronyms of their own, and they wouldn’t yield anything resembling real words in the 5×5 columns.

Focusing on the clues in the puzzle is the next key piece. You might have noticed a few strange ones as you solved, like 46A: [“Erie News ___” (Pennsylvania news program)] which is NOW. Why would I clue a common word like NOW with a fairly niche reference like that? Or 17D: [She campaigned in Michigan on Nov. 3, 2020] which is HARRIS. That’s recent information about Kamala HARRIS on Election Day, but it seems to be uber-specific when maybe a simple [Vice President-elect Kamala] could work just as well.

There key words in those clues are Erie and Michigan. Those are two of the five GREAT LAKES, and all five members of each of the five quartets can be found in the clues. It’s a bit of a scavenger hunt to find them, but they’re all there:


  • 14A: [Superior of a co.] is CEO.
  • 17D: [She campaigned in Michigan on Nov. 3, 2020] is HARRIS.
  • 23A: [___ Arbor (city on the Huron River)] is ANN.
  • 46D: [“Erie News ___” (Pennsylvania news program)] is NOW.
  • 58D: [Ontario-born Shania] is TWAIN.
  • 24A: [Hearing aid?] is AMP.
  • 39A: [Taste toast, say] is EAT.
  • 43A: [Begin to smell bad, say] is ROT.
  • 96D: [Like a laptop when you don’t touch it for a while] is IDLE.
  • 131A: [” … ___ he drove out of sight” (holiday poem line)] is ERE.
  • 8D: [Middle Ages lands] is FIEFS.
  • 26D: [Thumb (through)] is LEAF.
  • 91A: [Bride’s words before putting on a ring, perhaps] is I DO.
  • 107A: [Greek symbol for the index of refraction, in physics] is ETA.
  • 147D: [Pinkie Pie, to Marble Pie, on “My Little Pony”] is SIS.
  • 5D: [Chicken korma of Indian cuisine, e.g.] is ENTREE.
  • 83D: [Southern Methodist University graduate Bush] is LAURA.
  • 85D: [Wharton once published in the Atlantic Monthly] is EDITH.
  • 132A: [Pacific salmon] is COHO.
  • 133A: [Arctic birds] is TERNS.


  • 13D: [Sporty Toyota model] is SOLARA.
  • 82D: [Baby who hoots] is OWLET.
  • 116A: [Posh ride to a film premiere] is LIMO.
  • 149A: [Scary street in film] is ELM.
  • 155A: [Ginger ale, e.g.] is SODA.

These are the 25 answers whose first letters we need for the 5×5 grid. Looking back at the five “notable quintet” clues, the GREAT LAKES answers apply to Row A, the SENSES answers apply to Row B, etc. But what order should the first letters go in? If you solved on paper, you might first try the opening letters of the Across answers and then Down, but this would result in CAHNT in Row A, AEREI in Row B, and that doesn’t look very promising.

However, it’s close to the right idea. You have to take the first letters for each category in grid order, from top to bottom. I’ve listed the key answers in grid order above, but here they are again, showing what words they produce from their first letters:


So, once you’ve found all 25 relevant clues and taken the first letters of their answers in grid order, enter those letters in the appropriate rows, using the first letters of the GREAT LAKES-associated answers in Row A, the first letters of the SENSES-associated answers in Row B, and so on. Your 5×5 grid should look like it does as shown on the right.

You’re almost done, but there’s one final step. I hope you didn’t stop after filling in that small grid thinking the meta answer was one of the words in it! Go back to the clue for COLUMNS at 81A: [Parts of the 5×5 grid whose corresponding 93 Across will lead you to the meta answer]. 93A is CLUES, and the answers in the columns are CAFES, HELLO, ARIEL, NIECE, and TESTS. Just like you did before, you need to look in the puzzle’s clues. There are five of them that would also work for those COLUMNS answers. Here they are, in grid order:

  • CAFES –> 10D: [Casual dining spots] = BISTROS
  • HELLO –> 18D: [What one may say upon walking through the door] = I’M HOME
  • ARIEL –> 51A: [Animated underwater Disney character] = NEMO
  • NIECE –> 114D: [She’s part of the extended family] = GRANDMA
  • TESTS –> 157A: [Some academic hurdles] = ORALS

And the first letters of those five answers? They spell BINGO. It’s a game played in a 5×5 grid, it’s something you might shout when you finally crack the meta and it’s your meta answer.

This was one of the most complex puzzles I’ve ever written. It went in several fits and starts. The first big problem to solve was the 5×5 grid. That might seem like a less daunting challenge than the full 23×23 grid, but the smaller grid gave me just as many headaches. That’s because I needed five COLUMNS words that could be used for the same clue as five grid answers whose first letters would spell BINGO in order, and I wanted the words in the five Rows to be real, legitimate words in their own right. It’s amazing just how long it took me to nail down a 5×5 grid that satisfied both conditions. In fact, I originally had a different 5×5 that I thought was golden, only to realize, approximately 15 minutes after building it, that one of the Rows answers was LAKES, which was a fatal flaw given that GREAT LAKES was a quintet answer. I couldn’t risk that being a massive source of confusion, so I started over.

After figuring that part out, I then had to build a 23×23 puzzle with 39 (!) total relevant theme entries: the five starting “notable quintet” answers, the four additional helper answers, 25 answers where I could work in all quintet members in their clues, and the five critical answers whose first letters would spell BINGO in order. I had to stretch to work some of those clues in, like the Erie reference in the NOW clue and the Pinkie Pie reference in the SIS clue, but I did my best to make most of those clues sound natural.

Given the importance of the number 5 in this meta, this puzzle is what I originally wanted to run on my fifth anniversary of starting at The Washington Post on Dec. 6. Unfortunately, this was impossible for two reasons: 1) I had a big work crunch the week I was to submit a puzzle for Dec. 6, needing to complete two puzzles that week rather than one; and 2) I only thought of the idea for a big 5×5 meta treasure hunt about BINGO two days before the first of those two puzzles was due. I figured it was better to wait and plan this one out as carefully as I could, rather than rush and get it wrong. And this way, I made it the final puzzle of the year. Why not go big to close out 2020?

So that’s it! Thanks for reading this tome of a blog post, and thanks everyone for solving and participating throughout the year even as we all faced big challenges in real life. I’ll see you in 2021 with new puzzles and hopefully some new tricks up my sleeve.

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