Date: April 21, 2007
Byline: Meg Tirrell
Cruciverbalists, keep your day jobs
For Tyler Hinman, Saturday is the hardest day of the week. The 22-year-old Chicagoan can write and read simultaneously, and he counts himself among an elite group of people called "cruciverbalists." Hinman, who recently became a trader at the Chicago Board of Trade, is a three-time victor of the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which has been held each spring in Stamford, Conn. But after last year's popular documentary "Wordplay" brought America's attention to competitive crossword solving, Hinman and his puzzling cohorts will compete in the tournament's new, larger venue in Brooklyn next year.
The prize for winning the tournament — solving puzzles in the fastest time — is $5,000. But what about the people who construct the crosswords: the cruciverbalists? How much do they make? "Financially, it's never been a high-paying business," said Tribune Media Services crossword puzzle editor Wayne Robert Williams. Williams has been constructing crosswords since 1969, and he came to the Tribune 10 years ago.
TMS pays $75 for a daily crossword, a 15 by 15 grid that can have no more than 78 words. A Sunday crossword, 21 by 21 with a maximum of 142 words, goes for $250, Williams said.
Anyone can submit a puzzle, and most constructors are part-timers. "You have to do a lot of work in order to make a living in crossword puzzles," Williams said.
Puzzle champ Hinman also has a "day" job. Actually, he works nights, trading bond futures for Darwin Capital Trading. He also constructs crosswords for the Onion at $100 a pop, but says he can't make a living out of puzzles.
"I don't think I could do it," Hinman confessed. "As for constructing, you'd have to really do it a lot, like get a full-time gig."
Full-time puzzle-making "A full-time gig" in the crossword world would be what Williams does for the Tribune, or what Indiana native Will Shortz does for The New York Times.
Shortz became crossword puzzle editor at The Times in 1993. He also acts as puzzle master for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition on Sunday, a spot he's held since the program's inception in 1987.
Shortz is the ultimate in full-time puzzlers, or "puzzle-heads," as he calls them. He holds a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, from Indiana University, the only person ever to pursue such an academic path. He constructed his own curriculum and followed it up with a law degree from the University of Virginia.
"I had joked when I was a child about majoring in puzzles in college," Shortz said, "and never thought that I could actually do that. But I got accepted into the program, and it did exactly what a major should do."
Shortz explained that Indiana University has an independent major program, and "if you're accepted you can do anything you want." For Shortz, that was puzzles.
"I got educated in my field and I got to know the fundamentals of puzzles better than anyone else," he said.
So what does a full-timer at the height of the crossword world make? He says New York Magazine erred when it reported his salary as $90,000 in 2005, but he won't reveal the actual number. However, like other full-time puzzlers, Shortz also produces puzzle books, which can bring in significant extra income.
But freelancing crosswords for the Times isn't too shabby either. Shortz pays $135 for a daily puzzle and $700 for a Sunday, more than any other puzzle publisher. He organizes puzzles into a weekly hierarchy of difficulty levels; Monday's is the easiest, while Saturday's could stump even some of the most brilliant solvers.
Hinman first tried his hand at The Times crossword when he was in ninth grade, and had the misfortune to begin on a Friday, the second-hardest day of the week.
"It didn't go well," he admitted, but like any good solver, he kept trying.
"I was actually successful on (the following) Monday," Hinman said, "and I thought, wow, I got really good at these really quickly. Then I learned that it gets tougher than Monday."
Challenge and entertain Besides introducing the difficulty hierarchy and doubling pay for crosswords, Shortz added creators' bylines to puzzles. Director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and darling of "Wordplay," Shortz has a wide pool of admirers, from Hinman to Bill Clinton, who's reputed to solve The Times crossword in about 20 minutes.
Creating a crossword can take a few hours, according to Hinman and Williams, but solving one can happen in as little as two minutes at the hands of an experienced solver.
"You make a puzzle for the solver, but it's a battle you're supposed to lose," Hinman said of constructing puzzles. "Anyone can make a puzzle nobody can do. The idea is to challenge and to entertain and hopefully success comes eventually."
Hinman feels the same way about futures trading, a relatively new pursuit he hopes will be as fulfilling as — and more profitable than — creating and solving crossword puzzles.
"It's given me a lot of satisfaction to start out terrible at something and get better," he said. "I hope the same thing happens with my trading."