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Crazy About Crosswords

From Louisville, Kentucky, The Courier-Journal, December 29, 1998

Copyright 1998 The Courier-Journal. Used with permission.


QUICK NOW: Name a 15-letter compound noun that means, "just what the doctor ordered." Time's up. The correct answer is CROSSWORD PUZZLE-if the doctor is Louisville pediatrician Larry Wasser. Wasser is, in a phrase, a word puzzle fanatic. He'll duck into the doctors' lounge during his hospital rounds to tackle one or two newspaper crosswords. He uses spare lunchtime moments to hit the puzzle books stashed on his desk. He'll fill in two or more puzzles before nodding off at bedtime. "It helps me settle in and shut out everything else," Wasser said, explaining how a round of tough crosswords actually helps him to relax. The doctor relaxes competitively too. For the past two years he's been the only Kentuckian in the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn. Both times he finished in the top 90 out of 250-plus competitors-competitors who include many of the nation's elite puzzle-doers and puzzle-makers.

"It's really a lot of fun," said Wasser, who is 50.

These contests attract people who can finish a large, New York Times Sunday crossword in just 10 to 15 minutes. A simpler weekday puzzle might take all of 180 seconds. Wasser recalled subduing one Sunday-sized tournament puzzle in just 17 minutes out of 45 minutes allotted. "I thought, 'That's pretty good!' " he said. "But someone else finished 10 minutes before I did. It's incredible how fast people are." Competitive crossword puzzling is a test of speed, brainpower, memory, knowledge, strategy and other skills that typically demand years of practice. You have to master the words that appear routinely as fillers. You look for clues that reveal themes that might unlock an entire puzzle. You have to know about history, celebrity, foreign language, pop culture, art, literature, horticulture and much more. And that's just the start. Some puzzles are written with clues that attempt to trick solvers down the wrong path. Others use obscure clues for obvious words that don't become obvious until they are finally figured out. Wasser, who grew up in New Jersey, said his parents always enjoyed crossword puzzles and the word game Scrabble. But he didn't seriously follow suit until three decades ago when he started solving New York Times puzzles as an undergraduate at Yale University.

He had a long way to go, he learned.

"I had a friend who lived across the hall who used to do it (the Times crossword) in ink, starting in the upper left-hand corner and moving down to the lower right, basically finishing the puzzle," he said. "l was always in awe of him. I could never do it that well in college."

Now he can. And he does, zipping through seven or eight puzzles during a typical day. He also enjoys British-style "cryptic" puzzles, puzzles featuring anagrams or puns and even "diagramless" puzzles, which he used to consider impossible.

"I feel like I've finally caught up," he said.

Just being around Wasser has led two of his medical assistants, Jan Miles and Terri Mitchell, to get more seriously into puzzle solving.

They used to struggle with simple crosswords and ask Wasser for help. "And whatever we couldn't get, he'd finish in 21/2 seconds," Miles recalled chuckling. "We said, 'That's all right, we're going to get better.' And we have. We're getting pretty good. But we're not even close to him. Never will be."

Wasser doesn't know if he'll make it to the 1999 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, March 12-14. It will have to fit in with his other commitments.

He does hang out around Internet discussions that focus on the intricacies of puzzling word play. But unlike some other longtime puzzle-solvers, Wasser doesn't yet aspire to create his own crosswords. "Constructing them is a whole different ballgame," he said. "Right now I'm happy to solve them."

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