Date: October 2005
Byline: Carol Hall
What's a 10-Letter Word for a Crossword Fanatic Who Loves Puzzles, Ping-Pong, and Pleasantville?
As I approach the basement room of Hastings-on-Hudson community center, I hear grunts and the manic sound of Ping-Pong; the Rivertowns Table Tennis Club is in full swing. There, playing ferociously, tongue stuck out in concentration and sweat trickling down his face, is the New York Times' crossword-puzzle editor, Will Shortz. Go ahead and try to finish one of his puzzles. But whatever you do, do not challenge this man to a game of table tennis. "Will can rip your soul out" with his paddle, says club member and friend Steve Zeitlin, with admiration.
"He is an intensely competitive table-tennis player and a very good one," says Hastings resident Bob Mankoff, also a club member and the New Yorker's cartoon editor. "But he's also very nice. He'll say, 'Good shot!' or 'I wish I could do that!'" says Mankoff. "You win on compliments even as you're losing on points."
Shortz's ability to focus is remarkable. He is so passionate about table tennis that he plays for at least three hours daily, five or six evenings a week. "I love the geometry of this game," gushes Shortz, a trim, energetic 53-year-old with a dark mustache. Before taking up the game, Shortz was an avid cyclist but has since surrendered peddling in favor of Ping-Pong paddling. For Shortz, there seems to be no middle gear.
When he is not wielding a table-tennis paddle, Will Shortz is not quite so competitive. But he is still not what you'd expect one of the brightest stars of the puzzle world. He is not aloof, he does not flaunt his superior knowledge of, well, everything. He does not even seem wildly eccentric (only mildly). As he shows a guest around his cozy four-bedroom Tudor-style home in Pleasantville, its oak trim picked up by his Arts and Crafts furniture, he is both eager and a tad shy.
He beams as he shows off his collection of puzzle memorabilia. He has a rare puzzle by Sam Loyd, a 19th-century creator of puzzles. "My hero since I was about 10," says Shortz. He has the only privately owned copy of the world's first published "word cross" puzzle from a 1913 New York World newspaper (the words were transposed in a typesetter's error three weeks later, and the name stuck). He unfurls a handmade quilt, a huge Will Shortz crossword puzzle, clues and all, created for an Alzheimer's benefit. (Shortz liked it so much, he bid on it and won.) He points out sheet music written during this country's crossword-puzzle craze in the mid-1920s: "Cross Word Mama, You Puzzle Me (But Papa's Gonna Figure You Out)." And there's a book of puzzles "created" by celebrities of the era: Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Will Rogers.
The shelves of his library are filled with reference books: 10,000 Answers; Who's Who in the Bible; Guide to Rock; Brands and Their Companies. These few titles hint at the controversy that arose when Shortz, previously the editor of Games magazine, was named the Times puzzle editor in 1993, at the relatively young age of 41. He succeeded Eugene Maleska, who had held the post for 16 years. In fact, Shortz is only the fourth person to hold the title since the Times began publishing the Sunday crossword puzzle in 1942 (the daily puzzle began in 1950).
Shortz's appointment ignited intense debate among crossword aficionados, because he brought a sense of playfulness to the staid crossword page. "Some loved it from the start," recalls Shortz, "and some hated it from the start and moved on." Words to describe a typical Maleska puzzle might include intimidating, obscure, and formidable. A Maleska clue might read "Polynesian demon" (answer: atua). These difficult puzzles are why crossword dictionaries exist. Maleska's critics often complained that his puzzles were too full of "crosswordese," little-used words that all but the most erudite solvers find unbearably obscure.
The words used to describe a typical Shortz puzzle, by contrast, might be playful, witty – but still formidable. He often includes references to pop culture in his puzzles ("Classic 1978 rock song with the lyric 'Nothing to do/Nowhere to go'": 'I Wanna Be Sedated' by The Ramones); sports ("1987 world figure-skating champion": Orser); even advertising ("Telemarketing aid": list). But that doesn't mean he shies away from classical mythology or Latin phrases, either. "I believe crosswords should reflect all of culture," he explains.
Many crossword fans sing the praises of Shortz's puzzling prowess. "I think the puzzles are getting better and better," says Anne Seavey, a Massachusetts resident in her 80s who has been a crossword fan since high school. "The one last Sunday," she says with a devotee's glee, "was horrible. It took me until Tuesday to finish!"
Since 1987, Shortz has appeared every Sunday on National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition," contributing a seven-minute segment featuring word games and brain busters. "He doesn't have a big ego — he's not trying to show off what he knows," says host Liane Hansen. "But he's not going to dumb it down, either. He's charming, funny, and intelligent, and there's a bit of the imp in him. He likes to play."
Hansen says she was once contacted by a minister who said he had to reschedule his church service 10 minutes later because parishioners were staying home, waiting in their cars, or leaving the service early to hear the Sunday puzzle.
Make no mistake about it: Shortz lives to stump people. But he doesn't want them to be permanently mystified, to be so frustrated they walk away from an unfinished crossword and never pick it up again. "Puzzles are entertainment," declares Shortz. "It's not hard to make a puzzle no one can do." He says he loves it when a solver says of a puzzle, "When I first looked at it, I thought it was impossible. Then, little by little ..." That, he says, is the "ideal" puzzle.
The puzzles he puts in the paper have gradually changed. For one thing, he now puts fewer facts and names into the crosswords. He has become fonder of brain-teasers — clues that may have fairly simple answers but that have to be looked at in more than one way. "'A tricky clue you have to work out is more satisfying," he says.
He enjoys confounding people in other ways, too. "Everybody thinks I should be a big fan of opera or classical music," he says, laughing. In fact, Shortz loves rough-hewn garage rock, a taste he picked up from his older brother and from the fact that he "grew up in Indiana, where the rock is a little harder." Shortz doesn't watch much TV, but, every Sunday evening, he makes a point of tuning in "Little Steven's Underground Garage" on WAXQ (104.3) FM.
William Shortz grew up on an Arabian horse farm in Crawfordsville, Indiana, the youngest of three children. It was his sister's love of horses that prompted his father, a personnel director for R.R. Donnelley, the world's largest commercial printing company, to purchase the farm, where the family kept about 15 to 20 horses. His sister grew up to be an equine vet and still lives near Crawfordsville, as does their mother. Shortz's brother is a lawyer in Los Angeles. Shortz returns to Indiana several times a year to visit his family.
He discovered his inner crostician when he was 8 years old. One afternoon, in an effort to occupy him, his mother gave him a piece of paper with a crossword grid she'd drawn on it and told him to create his own puzzle. It worked. He was totally absorbed and totally hooked. In the 5th grade, he took one of those aptitude tests that supposedly divines a child's career path. "At the end, I kept looking down the career list for 'puzzle-maker' to see how I'd done in that category," he recalls. In the 8th grade, when asked to write a paper about what he wanted to do with his life, "I wrote that I wanted to become a professional puzzle maker," says Shortz. He sold his first puzzle to a magazine at the age of 14.
At Indiana University, he completed the course work for a degree in economics by the time he was a junior. So Shortz was granted permission to pursue a degree of his own design for the next year — a degree in puzzle-making. He created courses for himself like "The Psychology of Puzzles" and "20th-Centrury American Word Puzzles." After completing his thesis — "The History of the American Word Puzzle Before 1860" — he was granted a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, perhaps the only one ever issued in the world. His father, a "straight-laced corporate type," wasn't too thrilled, he remembers, but his mother, whom he describes as a "more creative type," supported his ambition.
Shortz entered the University of Virginia Law School next. His original plan was to practice law for 10 years, then retire and create puzzles. He found the study of law dull compared to creating puzzles and wanted to drop out after the first year, but his parents persuaded him to finish. He did, completing papers on copyright and patent protection for puzzles. But he never took the Bar exam, going straight to a job at Penny Press, followed by the editorship at Games magazine.
Shortz lives alone in Pleasantville. He moved there in 1993, the same year he was hired by the Times, after a dozen years in Queens. He scoured the area for a place to live and settled on the town "because I found a house that I loved and because this community is sweet," he observes. "Pleasantville is not a pretentious town." Except for occasional forays into the Times' Manhattan office, Shortz usually works from home. He pre-records his NPR segment each week in New York City.
As the Times puzzle master, Shortz looks at up to 75 crosswords submitted to him each week by mail. "If a puzzle is really bad, I can tell in a matter of seconds," he says. "If it's really good, I can tell in about a minute." Shortz may create the novelty puzzle in the Sunday paper but emphasizes that the daily puzzles are the work of freelance puzzles "constructors" who range in age from 17 to 92. "It's a really wonderful range of people," he says. "Corresponding with contributors is the part of the job that brings me the most pleasure." (Creating crosswords is a labor of love, not money; the newspaper pays only $125 for the daily puzzle and $600 for the larger Sunday one.)
Shortz edits the puzzles — which means rewriting on average 50 percent of the clues — and checks them for accuracy. Each puzzle is tested by a team of four: three crossword champions and one tester Shortz described as "a good friend and puzzle lover." Accuracy is important. Shortz knows that solvers just wait for the master to make a mistake. He says there are about 12 to 15 goofs per year. A recent one was: "Ticket-scratching game." The answer: lotto. But, as Shortz acknowledges, lotto is a game in which you pick numbers to win.
Shortz often sounds a little out-of-breath, like someone who is rushing off to his next appointment. It's probably puzzle-related. He has already written and edited more than 100 puzzles books. Every other month he contributes a puzzle to Reader's Digest. He is the founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, program director of the National Puzzlers' League convention, founder of the World Puzzle Championship, and former chairman of the World Puzzle Federation. He also participates in a number of charitable events each year. In Westchester, for instance, he has directed a local crossword-puzzle tournament every fall for the past several years. People from all over Westchester participate, to benefit the Pleasantville Fund for Learning. He travels to libraries around the country giving puzzle talks. And who do you think wrote riddles for the Riddler in the 1995 movie "Batman Forever"?
This cross-world existence means a lot of time on the road, but that suits Shortz just fine; traveling and antiquing are two of his very favorite things to do. The World Puzzle Championship, for instance, was held last year in Croatia. This fall it will be staged in Hungary. All this traveling gives Shortz a chance to indulge that other passion of his: he seeks out table-tennis opportunities everywhere he goes. He even once found a place to play in Istanbul. "It's a great way to meet people, to get exercise, and to see a little slice of wherever you are," he explains.
Will Shortz happily admits that his life is devoted to baffling people, day in and day out. That doesn't bother him a bit. "I'm always learning, and that's one of the joys of the job," he says, and you can actually hear the delight in his voice. Then he chuckles, "I know a little about just about everything, but I am an expert at making enjoyable puzzles. The nice thing about crosswords," he adds with a smile, "is that they have concrete answers in black and white. Most problems we face in life don't have concrete answers."
He is unlikely to share the fate of one of his predecessors at the Times who suffered from a mid-life crisis over the choice of an occupation. "She was devoting her life to puzzles and began to wonder, 'Is this frivolous?'" he recounts. "I've never had a crisis like that. I feel puzzles are very worthwhile ... and I'm having a blast!"
That's not hard to figure.