Date: March 7, 2008
Byline: Shelley Fralic
The quiet rise of crossword infatuation
Here's how it started: I couldn't figure out 9 Down in a recent New York Times crossword, the clue being: "Last king of the united Sweden and Norway."
So, I cheated.
I Googled the clue and Rex Parker popped up.
Rex Parker is not the answer, of course, but he's the NYT puzzle blogger who led me to Will Shortz who led me to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament which led me to Jeffrey Krasnick who led me back to Michael Sharp, who turns out to be Rex Parker.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
This past weekend, in a Marriott Hotel in Brooklyn, N.Y., 699 gamers, in an assortment of categories from Juniors to Foreign, hunkered down in their cubbies, mechanical pencils in hand, in a 17,000-square-foot ballroom for the 31st annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, their goal being the grand prize of $5,000 and a brand new Merriam-Webster dictionary.
The latter, which you might consider a joke, was the idea of Will Shortz, who if you know anything about crossword puzzles will know he is the current wunderkind of the genre, having taken the once-staid New York Times crossword out of the dark and into the light.
Shortz started the tournament in 1978, attracting just 149 puzzlers.
This year, he moved it to a larger venue to accommodate a wide range of gamers, from 17-year-old puzzlemakers to middle-aged lawyers to an 81-year-old woman with sizzling synapses.
A self-described "puzzlehead," Shortz started making his own crosswords at the age of eight or nine, and "I sold my first one at the age of 14."
He became the editor of the venerated NYT puzzle in 1993, and there are many who credit him with changing the face of puzzling.
Made it cool. Hip, even.
But he's a humble guy, and doesn't agree.
Shortz is on the phone from New York, and says that while puzzling is definitely more popular these days, "I don't think it's ever going to be really hip because it's a brainy thing. Maybe it's semi-cool."
He'll concede there has been an evolution, though, and crosswords like his "today reflect language and culture as it exists. Not using arcane words. And the clues are more teasing and deceptive. There's more humour in the puzzle.
"Crosswords today are much more interesting."
The Internet is another reason the crossword is suddenly sexy, no longer just the kitchen table domain of retirees and Mensa wannabes.
There are five or six NYT bloggers, like Rex Parker, who solve the paper's puzzle every day, post the solutions and then write a "review," discussing difficulty level and the cleverness and complexity of themes and clues.
Parker, whose real name is Michael Sharp and who finished 55th overall in this year's tournament, is "the funniest blogger, and he's a good solver," says Shortz, adding that Amy Reynaldo is the "most expert" of the bloggers (she finished 15th overall this year).
Sharp couldn't be more thrilled by the compliment.
He recalls the first time he completed the tough Sunday NYT puzzle. It was in 1991, and he was 21.
"I remember the word was 'reup,' and I thought, what does reup mean?"
He started the blog in 2006, because "doing a crossword is a very solitary activity. A lot goes into it and then it just gets thrown away, so I thought I would just start reviewing them."
He accesses the puzzle from the NYT website, solves it, posts the solution and writes his review.
He says he does the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday puzzles in under 10 minutes, while the tougher ones later in the week take about 15 to 20 minutes. The blog is finished before 9 a.m. every day, when he heads off to work as an assistant English professor at Binghamton University in New York.
Sharp says the blog attracts about 8,500 hits a day, including many from B.C.
"A lot of people in Vancouver do the puzzle, and read my blog. That's a crossword-puzzling town."
And Sharp says Shortz needn't be so humble about his influence.
"The coolness that crosswords have now is in part because of him, because he really modernized crosswords.
"Their potential for coolness is even greater than most people, especially those involved in their publishing, realize."
This year, 23-year-old Tyler Hinman — who was featured in Wordplay, the 2006 documentary on the tournament — won a record fourth championship in a row.
There were also several Canadians taking part, including Vancouver's Emily O'Neill, who finished 42nd overall, and Jeffrey Krasnick, a 45-year-old Victoria accountant who works for the B.C. government in the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue.
In 2007, Krasnick finished 229th out of 698. This year, he was 162nd overall, after seven rounds over two days with final marks coming down to a formula based on accuracy and speed.
"I am happy with that improvement," he says.
Krasnick started serious puzzling several years ago, and now tackles four or five a day, including the NYT and Los Angeles Times online versions.
"I find them relaxing. It puts your brain in a different place. I work in tax, so you have to deal with minutiae of information, and it's sort of like that."
And, yes, he has been known to do the Monday NYT puzzle in under three minutes.
Which is what Shortz says you'll need to clock if you want bragging rights in crossword world.
"The fastest time I'm aware of, under Guinness conditions, on paper, for a Monday [NYT] puzzle, is 2:06 minutes," says Shortz, but "if you want to be a champion, you'd do it under three minutes."
The Friday and Saturday NYT puzzles, for champions, take six to eight minutes, while Sunday would average 10 to 12 minutes.
And, yes, Shortz does occasionally solve a puzzle or two himself, perhaps the one in Sunday's Wall Street Journal or USA Today, when he's on an airplane, but considers it more of a busman's holiday than fun.
Not that I would know anything about that. I do four crosswords a day, and am always clueless.
The answer, by the way, to 9 Down? Oscar II.
And three minutes? Takes me that long to fold it the way I like.