Date: May 3, 2007
Byline: Brett Johnson
Crossword master Will Shortz brings his puzzling talk to S.B.
What a wild, whirlwind ride it's been for the crossword puzzle in the past year, at least judged against its staid history.
The documentary film "Wordplay," which puzzle devotees swear is the first movie ever done about crosswords, was an indie hit and critic darling last summer; it even pulled in cameos from "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart and former President Clinton, among others, and made the talk show-fancy hotels rounds.
The man behind it, New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, now finds his box overstuffed with wannabe crosswords its authors would love to see make it into the Times, the Mount Everest of achievement in the puzzle world.
Shortz's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the scene for much of "Wordplay," drew a record 700-plus entrants in late March, a 40 percent increase over the 498 who played in 2006 which had been the previous record.
Now comes word that the biggest game show mogul of them all, Merv Griffin, is going to put the crossword on TV this September.
We are, says Shortz, in "the golden age of puzzles."
He will ride that momentum for at least another week, hitting the West Coast for a half-dozen speaking engagements that begin Sunday afternoon at UC Santa Barbara's Campbell Hall.
The movie, Shortz's 14-year perch at the Times and his 20-year turn as the "weekend puzzle master" on National Public Radio have cemented his status as the most recognizable name in crossword-dom.
In the film, Stewart called Shortz the "Errol Flynn of crossword puzzling."
"It was amusing," Shortz said by phone a couple of weeks ago from his suburban New York home office, "but I'm not sure exactly what that means."
Shortz, a typically soft-spoken type, allowed that he is the best-known figure in the business but stopped short of saying he's become the Bono of the back pages. "Rock star might be too strong," he said with a slight chuckle.
Others, however, say he's a giant who's elevated the crossword.
"Everyone says Will is the perfect ambassador for puzzles, which is true," said Merl Reagle, a longtime puzzle constructor and friend of Shortz's who also appeared in "Wordplay."
The puzzle has survived the Internet, mosh pits, bungee jumping, late-comer Sudoku and scads of other fads and diversions in a fast-paced, fragmented society to somehow become more popular. Shortz thinks he knows why.
"Crosswords today have never been as good," he said. "They are a perfect entertainment for modern times."
It's hip in these squares
Once a dry exercise filled with pluralized prefixes, variant spellings and arcane words plucked from the nether reaches of the dictionary, crosswords are now lively. They're sprinkled with clever answers, themes, puns and bits of pop culture TV, movies, sports, rock 'n' roll. Just reading some of the clues is half the fun.
If a nerdy stigma remains, it's fading almost as fast as a pair of Levis. Puzzles now cater to the well-rounded person with a flexible mind and a sense of humor. The average daily puzzle has 74 to 78 answers, Shortz said, and each can be on a different topic.
"They emphasize the language people use, words, names and the culture," Shortz said. "The themes in modern puzzles are more clever and funnier."
At least half of Shortz's stops next week are in college towns (in addition to UCSB, that includes UCLA and UC Berkeley).
Though he indicated it's in part an attempt to increase puzzle play among younger people, Shortz also said that's already occurring.
In a span of more than 50 years before Shortz took over, only three teens ever got a crossword into the New York Times. During his decade-and-change tenure, eight teens and "many more 20-somethings" have done that, Shortz said. The day before this interview, a high-schooler dropped off a puzzle for him to consider.
Reagle was one of those three who got one into the Times in pre-Shortz days (in 1966, when he was 16). But even he has never seen anything like this.
"The past year was just about the most exciting time I've had as a puzzle maker," Reagle said by phone from his Tampa home. "I mean, being in a movie? And then being on 'Oprah?'"
At a Ritz-Carlton, the chocolatier sent him candy delights in the shape of a crossword puzzle. It was an adventure.
"And it was all set into gear by Will," Reagle said. "If it wasn't for Will, all of us would be twiddling our thumbs."
In black and white
Shortz, 54, is passionate about puzzles. In addition to his high-profile Times and NPR gigs, Shortz was the editor of Games magazine for 15 years.
He's founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. He's also a puzzle historian who can tell you that the first crossword was made in 1913 and that the first puzzle on our shores was a "versified enigma" published in an almanac in 1647.
His degree from Indiana University was in enigmatology, the study of puzzles. He came up with the major; it had a lot to do with logic, statistics and psychology.
As editor of the New York Times crossword (which appears in The Star daily and Sunday), Shortz used to get 60 to 70 puzzles a week sent to him; since the movie came out, that's likely gone into triple digits.
"It's gotten to the point where I can't handle it myself," he said.
Shortz said he looks for those with witty themes "the best of them are original, fresh and funny" quality vocabulary, wide-open construction with lots of white and less black (meaning longer words), and those that use unique letters such as J, Q, X and Z.
He also looks for clever clues, although here he rewrites a great deal. "On average," he said, "about half the clues are mine. If I have to rewrite all the clues to make them interesting, I can do that."
He'll also send stuff back, such as a recent puzzle where the constructor badly misspelled the word "chieftain."
But Shortz is not above pointing out his rare goofs. Last year, he had a puzzle with MGs as an answer as in Booker T. and the MGs of 1960s pop music fame ("Green Onions" was a hit). Shortz clued it as "backup singers for Booker T." Wrong.
"What I forgot was they were an instrumental band," he said. "So they were backup musicians, not singers."
He got a few calls on it. After sorting out such issues on the black and white, Shortz then slots the puzzles according to level of difficulty. As any crossword veteran knows, the Monday-Tuesday ones are easiest, Wednesday-Thursdays are moderate and Friday-Saturdays are hard. The larger Sunday puzzles, at 21 rows by 21 columns (the daily squares are 15 by 15), are just bigger versions of a Thursday-level puzzle.
14-across as a highlight clip
Reagle calls the Times crossword the "pace-setting, cutting-edge puzzle." Shortz, he said, is the perfect fit there.
"He's got this really big open mind about everything," Reagle said. "Whatever your screwy idea is, he's willing to let it fly. He's trying to open up the boundaries. He really has these eclectic tastes, and the puzzles reflect that. He's got a great sense for what makes a puzzle work."
The admiration is mutual. Reagle sold his first puzzle to Shortz in 1979 and has served as a judge at Shortz's tournament for more than a quarter-century.
Said Shortz of Reagle: "He's a great all-around puzzle maker. He is the funniest person in puzzle making. He can make puzzles that make you laugh out loud."
Reagle, 57, is no stranger to wit and puns. Sample clue: "Worst place in the world for a frog?" Answer: "No fly zone." For a puzzle themed to inappropriate Muzak heard at the doctor's office, two of his answers were "Killing Me Softly" (made famous by Roberta Flack) and "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" (the Stevie Nicks-Tom Petty duet).
Reagle, now syndicated and focusing on the larger Sunday puzzles, said the balancing act today and into the future will be to continue to skew puzzles younger without losing older people.
"We want to make them tricky in a way that's doable," he said. "I've always said that a good crossword puzzle should be 'Jeopardy' on a page."
Speaking of game shows, Griffin is going to try to take the puzzle to TV with "Let's Do Crosswords," slated to debut Sept. 10 on NBC.
The gap is closing, Reagle said. He can see a similar thing happening with Shortz's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Next year's edition, the 31st, is moving from Stamford, Conn., to Brooklyn. "We've outgrown the hotel," Shortz said.
Perhaps, after years of obscurity on the gray back-40s of the features and classified sections, the crossword has outgrown the page. Reagle can see the day when the tournament is "an event on ESPN at midnight, and then maybe down to 9 p.m."
Whatever the crossword becomes, with people such as Will Shortz and Merl Reagle around, it'll be done with a high level of taste and dedication, along with splashes of wit and fun.