Date: August 14, 2005
Byline: Regis Behe
Cruciverbalists eat, sleep and dream crosswords
James Gilbert waits for the paper every morning. He can't eat breakfast, can't do much of anything, until it arrives.
But it's not the news or sports he craves. Gilbert is waiting to do the crossword puzzles that have intrigued him for the past 70 years of his life.
"I find them a little easier as I get older," says Gilbert, 85, of Cheswick.
So easy that he's had to come up with a way to challenge himself. Gilbert not only solves puzzles as difficult as the New York Times' version — the Cadillac of crosswords — but he's come up with an unusual way to solve them.
"I do them horizontally and in ballpoint pen," he says. "I had to resort to playing a game with myself and filling it out horizontally to challenge myself."
While Gilbert's method might be unusual, he's not alone in his pursuit.
Between 20 million and 30 million Americans per day solve — or at least attempt to complete — a crossword puzzle every day, according to Marc Romano's "Crossworlds: One Man's Journey into America's Crossword Obsession" (Broadway, $24.95). Ranging in degree of difficulty from simple — the TV Guide version — to challenging — the New York Times and the New York Sun — crosswords mirror the culture in which they are produced.
"They are snapshots of a moment in time," Romano says. "They are constructed by one person, edited by another, and inevitably some sort of theme tends to creep into it, even if it's a completely themeless puzzle."
But what makes a good crossword puzzle?
"The trick is to successfully target your audience," says Fred Piscop, of North Babylon, N.Y., one of the foremost crossword constructors in the United States, "and audiences differ greatly depending on the markets."
A puzzle targeted to a major metropolitan area — the New York Times puzzle, for example — would have different clues than one in Boise, Idaho. Piscop, who began creating British-style cryptic crosswords in the 1980s and currently edits and constructs puzzles for publications ranging from the Washington Post to In Touch Weekly magazine, calibrates each crossword to fit its intended demographic.
"You have to think not only in terms of overall difficulty but in terms of diagram content," he says, "straight dictionary words versus color slang and pop culture, straight themes versus punny, clever, humorous wordplay-ish ones."
The most effective way of increasing — or decreasing — the difficulty of a puzzle is derived from how the answer is clued. At the 2004 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn. — yes, there is such a competition — legendary puzzle master Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times' crosswords, clued the answer "DANDELION" three ways for the final divisions of the competition. In descending order of difficulty:
- Plant named for the teeth of a big cat.
- Kind of wine.
- Yard nuisance
"The difference between a gold standard puzzle, like the New York Times, and a not-quite-as-good puzzle really reflects the editor's ability to do the cluing," Romano says. "The difference between a breezy Monday and the tear-your-hair-out Friday (the New York Times puzzles increase in difficulty as the week progresses) really doesn't hinge so much on the fill as much as the cluing."
The best puzzles have a clean, aesthetically pleasing design and are logically cohesive. Piscop notes that a difficult crossword that uses obscure words and phrases is not a good puzzle. The optimum crossword puzzle has a clean, solid diagram with clues that are tricky but not ambiguous.
"When the solver finally gets it, he says to himself, 'Of course!'" Piskop says.
Left brain, right brain
This year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in March attracted more than 450 cruciverbalists, the term used to describe crossword puzzle aficionados. They came from all walks of life, but the most successful solvers at the tournament tend to have either a mathematical or musical background.
"People who are used to dealing with some type of symbolic notation, in music or math, tend to be more adept at picking up on patterns," Romano says. "What's really interesting about crossword puzzles is they are both left brain and right brain at the same time."
The best contestants at the tournament can complete a Saturday Times puzzle — the most difficult — in 10 minutes or less. But most people who solve crosswords aren't looking for competition. Angelique Campbell, 35, of the North Side, does puzzles almost every day on her lunch break.
"I'm addicted," she says, noting she enjoys the challenge of solving crosswords. "I can't answer all the questions all the time, but I keep trying."
Romaine Balog, 74, of Moon, goes out every Saturday evening to pick up the Sunday edition of the New York Times puzzle.
"I get cranky if I don't do that every single weekend," she says. "I just love it."
Balog says it takes her about three hours — "if I apply myself," she says — to finish the puzzle. She learned to solve them from her father, who used to come home from work and wind down with "a pot of tea, three pipes and stogies, and three books."
"But nobody else in my family picks them up," she says, noting that one of the hardest parts of solving the Sunday crossword is not giving in to the temptation to start it on Saturday.
Most fans of crosswords enjoy the intellectual stimulation derived from solving puzzles.
Ginny Panigall, 61, of Greensburg, compares crosswords to the Trivial Pursuit board game, saying it helps to have an inquisitive disposition.
"I just put it down to the fact that I'm a Gemini," she says. "I'm a jack of all trades, the master of none. I know a little bit about a whole lot of things, and this sort of thing has always fascinated me."
Dominic Petrarca, 60, of Hempfield, enjoys the "mental gymnastics" of crosswords. He and his wife, Ardella, 58, do two puzzles each most mornings.
"I finish first because she takes the toughest ones," says Petrarca, a retired engineer. "It keeps our minds pretty quick. And there's a sense of satisfaction when you complete one, especially the New York Times version."
Sometimes crosswords just satisfy a need to improve one's vocabulary.
"I think they introduce me to a lot of words I wouldn't have used otherwise," says Virginia Holden, 91, of Level Green. "I learn a new word every day. I'm not that speedy, but I manage to get through most of them."
Tim Hrehocik, 54, of McKeesport, calls solving crosswords a combination of "relaxation and brain taxation."
"It keeps you current in language," he says, noting he does at least two puzzles every day in the evening after work. "It taxes your brain on a variety of subjects, from music to current events."
Judy Benson, 62, of Brighton Heights, started solving crosswords when she was a child, filling in the blank spaces from her mother's puzzles. She enjoys a variety of different types of crosswords, from the harder-to-solve, more cryptic British puzzles to the challenging American-style ones.
"I don't really have a system (for solving)," she says, noting she finds doing crosswords simultaneously relaxing and stimulating. "I just look for clues that I can answer, then start building from there."
Michele Haberstich, 59, of Braddock Hills, thinks the act of solving crosswords illustrates a basic human function.
"I'm fascinated by the way it illustrates how the brain works," she says. "If I get stumped, I'll get up and walk away from it. But my mind is still running, like a computer, and when I go back a lot of times the answer is right there. It's like my brain keeps working without me telling it what to do."
Marc Romano was in the midst of a depressing period in his life when he attended the 2004 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The competition, he hoped, would alleviate the doldrums he was feeling and perhaps yield some insights into his own life.
It ended up doing that, and more. When he arrived in Stamford, he immediately noticed that people were unfailingly pleasant toward him.
"I couldn't figure out why so many of them were nice people," he says.
As Romano immersed himself deeper into the competition, however, a pattern emerged just like a theme in a crossword puzzle. Will Shortz, the New York Times editor, has theorized there is an inherently moral aspect to doing puzzles that is reflected in the people that do them. Because cruciverbalists spend so much time looking at the world and seeking answers, by nature they are kinder because of their accumulated awareness.
Romano, surrounded by so much good will and bonhomie in a time of need, was forced to agree.
"I think that really reflects the people who are involved in this bizarre little world," he says. "One of the things about crossword puzzles is, unlike delimited games like Scrabble, the realm of knowledge is unlimited. A clue could be anything in the world. So I think what happens is you get a lot of very intellectually curious people at a crossword puzzle tournament, and one of the things the book argues in its subtle, underhanded way is that people who do have a tremendous body of general knowledge about the world tend to be a little bit kinder to the world."