Date: June 28, 1996
Byline: Marilyn Dahl
Mandahla: Wordplay and Gridlock Reviewed
Wordplay: The Official Companion Book (Griffin, $9.95, 0312364032, June); Gridlock: Crossword Puzzles and the Mad Geniuses Who Create Them by Matt Gaffney (Thunder's Mouth Press, $13.95, 156025890X, August 2006, now on sale)
The stars seem to be aligning for crossword puzzlers. Wordplay (the documentary) has opened to well-deserved rave reviews, Griffin has published a tie-in with the same title, Thunder's Mouth Press has Matt Gaffney's Gridlock, and in this Sunday's New York Times Style section, the featured couple in "Vows" met at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2005. (We may want an update in a few years: she does her puzzles in pencil, he uses ink.) While this may not wrench sudoku fans away from their grids, it does give crossword enthusiasts some fun books and a witty, intelligent movie.
Wordplay is obviously a tie-in, and will enhance the moviegoer's experience, but can be enjoyed by any crossword puzzle solver in spite of its paste-job effect. Centered on the 28th annual ACPT held in Stamford, Conn., it features interviews with ACPT winners past and present, like Jon Delfin, Ellen Ripstein, Trip Payne and Tyler Hinman. Celebrity puzzlers are also profiled, most notably Jon Stewart, who asked Will Shortz for help constructing a puzzle with theme answers that were a marriage proposal. He feared that he would make a hash of the puzzle himself, causing his girlfriend to think someone else was proposing. Merl Reagle contributes a droll piece on how to construct a puzzle. He leaves hanging the question of why people create them, but does go through the steps of creation, which involve paper, pencil and often a coffee shop. He says it's a challenge to explain, and "that's a mind-numbing anaesthetic for most people, actually. But at least it doesn't involve a lot of soul-searching . . . I just wrote soul-searching into one of my little notebooks because it contains all the vowels once. Kind of a reflex thing. Ignore it." Many interesting facts are scattered throughout; for instance, Shortz changes about 50% of the clues for clarity, accuracy and degree of difficulty, and the same puzzle can be clued from easy to diabolical.
Gridlock, written by Matt Gaffney, a premier puzzle constructor and ACPT judge, features the 29th annual tournament of 2006, where the winner takes home $4,000 and a "boatload of geek street cred, the latter of which is probably the greater incentive." That story is especially interesting for those who have seen or read Wordplay, and Gaffney's edgy, witty writing is entertaining. His favorite wrong answer in the tournament comes in Round 4, when, "instead of the correct EARLOBE for the clue 'Stud's place,' one contestant inexplicably writes in ESTONIA." He writes at length about the history of crosswords, introduces other crosswords to New York Times-centric puzzlers, most notably those of the New York Sun and editor Peter Gordon, and discusses how computers have changed constructing a crossword (they're good at filling in a grid, but can't pick a theme or write clues). He mentions the backlash against sudoku: for people who've spent much of their lives perfecting their craft, a completely computer-generated fad that has tons of fans creates resentment (Will Shortz, interestingly, has brought out a number of sudoku books which have sold very well because of his brand). He interviews a reclusive Henry Hook, the third greatest American constructor of all time according to a cruciverb.com poll, and details the construction of a puzzle. In explaining how themes come to be created, he says, "Like a city rat that thinks he smells lunch in the trash can down the alley, the crossword constructor is happy to follow a promising trail for a block or two . . . If it shakes out, you've got a theme; if it doesn't, you . . . go back to your life, keeping your whiskers primed for the next lead."
Cruciverbalists will want to buy these books together. Gridlock has a lot of information, but its drawback is the absence of puzzles to solve. Wordplay contains 50 crosswords to solve, some historical, some champion favorites, some from the 2005 tournament. The puzzles are interspersed throughout the book, and can stop the story, but they are superb, like "The Greatest Puzzle Ever," written by Jeremiah Farrell for Tuesday, November 5, 1996. If you don't know about this puzzle, you are in for an exceptional treat; Shortz considers it the best crossword puzzle he's ever seen. Both books talk about Eric Albert's "Night Lights," another exceptional creation. Keep these titles on your list for your holiday gift book display — wrapped in ribbon as a set: perfect.