Date: October 13, 2009
Byline: Vinh Tran
20 across:keynote speaker for 2009 PSU Weekend
When Will Shortz is the keynote speaker at an event, don't expect the audience to just sit still.
Shortz demonstrated at Saturday's PSU Weekend that the audience contributes to the entertainment as much as himself and his witty quips. Some raised their hands and some shouted out answers, while others mumbled to themselves in attempt to decipher his puzzles.
About 450 Portland State alumni, students and community members packed into the Smith Memorial Student Union Ballroom for the event on Saturday.
For fans of word games, he's the man behind The New York Times crosswords since 1993 and NPR's Weekend Edition puzzles since 1987.
For others, it was Shortz's appearances in Wordplay, a 2006 documentary movie about crosswords, and most recently on The Simpsons, where Shortz helps mend Homer's relationship with Lisa, that made him a fascinating figure. The fact that he's the only person who holds a degree in the study of puzzles certainly helps the matter.
The puzzle behind the man
Shortz graduated from Indiana University in 1974 with a degree in enigmatology, a program he developed himself. His studies included courses on word puzzles, math puzzles and the psychology of puzzles. For his thesis, Shortz said it was on the history of American word puzzles before 1860.
"I did not expect to have a career in this," Shortz said. "I did it because I love puzzles and because when I graduated there weren't jobs available to me, so I had to form my own career."
His first intended career was in law. Shortz did all the groundwork for a law career, going as far as earning a doctorate from the University of Virginia, but forwent the bar exam and never became a lawyer.
Because of his formal law education, Shortz said it helps him understand the world better.
"Law school is good training for the mind, it can train you for anything in the world," Shortz said. "It teaches you to take a complex issue and separate them into smaller parts and deal with each one individually, and that's how you solve a puzzle." In 1978, Shortz founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the largest and oldest crossword competition in the nation. In 2006, the event was featured in the documentary movie Wordplay, which focused on the story of five contestants.
His appearances in Wordplay drew attention from the producers of The Simpsons, who built a storyline around crosswords and featured him in a cameo appearance.
"When the movie first came out, the writers and the producers of The Simpsons took a day off to see it," Shortz said. "They loved it and thought it'd be a cool thing to devote an episode to crossword, and they asked me to get involved; it was fantastic."
Other sides of the puzzler
His knack for puzzles goes beyond crossword. Shortz is also a fan of Sudoku and KenKen, a logic puzzle similar to Sudoku that uses arithmetic to solve the puzzle. Shortz said that on his flight to Portland for PSU Weekend, he solved two KenKen puzzles.
"In a couple of weeks I'm directing the Sudoku National Championship for the third time in Philadelphia," Shortz said. "Next month I'm going to Turkey for the World Puzzle Championship, an event I founded in New York in 1992."
Although Shortz has met all kinds of characters at his tournaments and championships, he said he hasn't found anyone quite like the TV character Lisa Simpson, who competed in a crossword tournament similar to the one in Wordplay.
"She's unusually young," Shortz said. "The youngest contestant we had at the tournament was 13. We have a 20-year-old champion but no one quite as young as Lisa."
The youngest champion ever at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was college student Tyler Hinman, who first won when he was 20 years old, and by 2009 had won five consecutives titles, a record in the 32 years of the tournament.
Shortz said the idea that crossword puzzles are a game for older people is a myth, although it helps to be knowledgeable in a wide variety of subjects.
"It's helpful if you're very smart, but there are a lot of smart people who are not good at crosswords," Shortz said. "It's a specialized skill."
Advice from Shortz to novice crossword players is that they should start with the Monday crossword in The New York Times, which is built to be the easiest and gets harder as the week progresses. Shortz has also published a collection of the Monday crosswords for beginners.
Although Shortz said he prides himself on the fact that his Monday puzzles are the easiest puzzles out there, he doubts that even Lisa Simpson, who is 8 years old in the show, can crack the Friday crossword.
"Lisa will not be able to do the Friday crossword, there's a certain amount of knowledge you need to have," Shortz said. "She's damn smart, but man you have to know a little bit of everything. That would be extraordinary for her to be a crossword champion."