Date: October 25, 2006
Byline: Sandy George
Picture tells 1000 words
MUSICIANS and people in mathematics-related jobs such as computing are generally better at solving crossword puzzles at speed than wordsmiths because they are more skilled at absorbing and processing large amounts of information.
This has been demonstrated repeatedly by looking at the professions of winners of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The oldest and largest such event in the US, it has in recent years attracted about 500 entrants from across the country.
The competition and its top contestants are the focus of a new documentary titled Wordplay.
Put any group of people obsessed about the same thing on the big screen for 84 minutes and those who don't share their passion will probably look on with wonder or derision. And, yes, the audience does chuckle when 2001 champion Ellen Ripstein says, "It's kind of a nerd thing, but it's neat."
But there is also great humanity in this film, which opened in US cinemas in June and is the second most popular documentary of the year after the global warming-themed An Inconvenient Truth. Such is the power of cinema that website requests for information about the tournament have risen from one or two a week to 40 or 50.
The film-makers, the husband-and-wife team of Patrick Creadon and Christine O'Malley, used Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword and host of the tournament, as their way into the subject matter.
"I loved the film from the start because it was about a whole world that I love: the world of crossword puzzles," says Shortz, an Indiana University graduate and the only person in the world, apparently, to have a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles. "It was exciting and beautifully made and I was very impressed."
Shortz is well known in the US among crossword buffs — he also hosts a puzzles show on National Public Radio — and the film-makers wanted to find out more about the man behind the clues.
"I think what comes across is, well, that I am a nice person," he says on the phone from New York. "But crossworders are generally very nice people and you can tell that throughout the movie, and especially at the end of the tournament when three contestants come up to me at the front of the ballroom asking for one of their opponents to get more points. I do not think that would happen in every competition."
There are no strict rules about what subjects make good films, but crossword puzzles would seem to be an unusual choice. Yes, they are played by millions of people around the world, but they are usually a solitary, cerebral pursuit without the colour, movement and drama usually associated with big-screen success.
Shortz says the film-makers "lucked out" by deciding to cover the 2005 tournament: "It was the most exciting we have had in the history of the event and it had been going for 28 years then."
In the final round of the week-long tournament, three contestants aim to complete the same crossword within 15 minutes. It takes place in front of hundreds of people at a hotel in Connecticut where the finalists fill in their grids, which are mounted on easels on a stage.
Without spoiling the film's ending, one contestant thinks he has won but hasn't, giving another competitor a lucky break.
The 2005 champion won again this year, two months after the film had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. "He is going to be a champion for a long time to come," Shortz says.
The film sheds light on the tricks of crossword construction and there are many opportunities to play along with the champions but, be warned, they play at breathtaking speed. While Shortz, the tournament and the contestants provide the principal framework of the film, some prominent people are also featured.
Although these celebrities are not as obsessed by crosswords as other people in the film, they provide a rather serious point of view: crosswords can be seen as a metaphor for solving life's difficulties.
"You start with what you know the answer to and then you build on it," former president Bill Clinton says in the film.
"A lot of complex problems are like that. You have to find some aspect of it you understand and build on it until you can unravel the mystery that you're trying to solve."
Later, he says: "Most of us are capable of doing more than we think."
The Indigo Girls, who also appear, say the discipline of crosswords has helped their songwriting.
In one scene, Wordplay revisits the day of the 1996 US election when The New York Times crossword had a clue, for a horizontal word, asking who had won. The answers to the vertical clues made sense, whether the answer was Clinton or Bob Dole.
Shortz regards it as the greatest puzzle ever: it was created by Jeremiah Farrell and edited by Shortz who, on average, writes half the clues to the crosswords he chooses to publish from the 60 to 75 submitted to him every day.
When Creadon was planning the film he asked Shortz who was most likely to win the 2005 tournament. Shortz gave him 10 names, and all 10 entrants agreed to be filmed before the event, except Indian-American mathematics professor Kiran Kedlaya, who is glimpsed in the film.
Shortz says Kedlaya had concerns that his colleagues would disapprove of him spending time on something they thought frivolous. The three finalists were among those 10 and another two of them were runners-up.
"They (the film-makers) travelled around the country before the tournament to find out how they were preparing and about their lives," says Shortz, noting that they made the film from 90 hours of footage.
"It was all done legitimately, there was no going back after the tournament ... It tends to be the same people who finish near the top every year. The 2005 winner had not been in the top 10 before, but he was a young person moving up fast, and that's why I included him."
Asked about his own crossword skills, Shortz says he is "a super genius" compared with people in the street, in "the middle of the pack" compared with those who frequent the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and "a very ordinary solver" compared with the top players. Apparently, only about 30 out of the 500 entrants managed to solve the most difficult puzzle this year. Even the winner says it was "particularly brutal".
"I was worried that this movie was too American to be of interest to people outside the US," says Shortz. "It is about American crosswords and American culture. I am very pleased it is coming out in Australia."