American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Goofing up puzzles brings cross words, editors learn

Source: Sacramento Bee
Date: April 19, 2001
Byline: Steve Wiegand

Goofing up puzzles brings cross words, editors learn

Dennis Foley walked into the office the other day, and his voice mailbox was stuffed with calls from customers -- which in Foley's line of work is often not a good thing.

Foley is the ombudsman for the Orange County Register. And sure enough, irate readers by the dozens were calling to complain about a snafu surrounding what they regarded as one of the newspaper's most sacred responsibilities: delivering the crossword puzzle.

"We ran the wrong answers for the crossword puzzles, three days in a row," Foley said with a somewhat rueful laugh. "I got lots of calls, because people who work crossword puzzles are an extremely intense and loyal audience. If you mess with their stuff, they can get really upset."

Really. If you're a newspaper, you can change headline styles -- but do not get crosswise with the crosswords. When The Bee once placed its crossword puzzles on back-to-back pages, for example, it triggered marital discord.

"It turned out spouses liked to each do their own puzzle," said Bee ombudsman Sanders LaMont, "so they would pull the section apart, and it would be 'you get this page, I get this page,' and when they couldn't do that anymore, we started getting calls that 'you're destroying my marriage.'"

In the interest of preserving matrimonial unity, the puzzles were quickly separated.

Crossword aficionados -- there are an estimated 40 million of them in this country -- are a devoted lot and have been since the first crossword puzzle book was published 77 years ago this week.

Actually, crossword puzzles had caught the fancy of American newspaper readers 11 years before two Columbia University graduates named Richard Simon and Max Schuster assembled a collection of puzzles and produced their first book in April 1924.

The first crossword puzzle was the brainchild of Arthur Wynne, a British-born editor of the New York Sunday World, who one day found himself stuck with a hole to fill on the paper's "fun" page. The 24-word puzzle he came up with, which he called a "word cross," appeared on Dec. 21, 1913.

But it was the publication of Simon and Schuster's book, which sold more than 150,000 copies its first year and began a publishing empire, that launched America's love affair with crosswords.

Hal Barron, a history professor at Harvey Mudd College who has done extensive, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, research into crosswords, posits that the puzzles helped put men and women on a more level playing field, since they did not require physical strength to excel.

"All ages, both sexes, highbrows and lowbrows, at all times and in all places, even in restaurants and in subways, pore over the diagrams," the New York Times reported in 1924.

They still do, and in places undreamt of in the '20s. On the Web, for instance, one site lists more than 100 links to other sites with crossword puzzles, and another site even offers the chance to compete for cash prizes against other crossword enthusiasts.

Of course puzzle solvers vary in intensity: "I cheat," one caller recently told Foley in scolding the paper for inadvertently running the solution to a puzzle in the same edition as the puzzle itself, thus leading him into temptation. President Clinton was known to fill out the New York Times Sunday puzzle during meetings on national security. Others take it -- puzzle solving, not national security -- more seriously.

Take Patrick Jordan. At 39, the advertising promotions manager for the Ponca City, Okla., News has been filling in crossword grids for 27 years -- and he might do 10 a day.

"I started out doing the easy ones in the back of the Weekly Reader," Jordan said, "and then in my teens I remember taking my allowance and buying my first crossword magazines, and just kept going from there."

Jordan finished second last month in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., where contestants race to accurately complete puzzles. He lost to a New York City researcher named Ellen Ripstein, who had finished in the contest's top five 19 years in a row, but never won.

"I actually beat her by more than two minutes," he said, "but I made one mistake, and each mistake adds eight minutes to your total time."

Jordan is also a "puzzle constructionist," having sold his puzzles to various syndicates, including the New York Times. Moreover, he's a "new wave" constructionist: His efforts are apt to contain references to brand names and pop culture, as opposed to traditional grids composed almost entirely of dictionary words and definitions, or references to now-obscure actors from the 1940s.

"I think people appreciate when it's everyday vocabulary and clues they can relate to, rather than obscure things that are thrown in because they fit," he said. "Who cares who the Babylonian god of dirt was?"

Well, if it's 32-across, Irving Grossman might. A retired auto salesman and current resident of the Albert Einstein senior center in Arden-Arcade, Grossman faithfully does the daily newspaper crosswords. He's been doing puzzles longer than he can remember, and at 92, he remembers a lot.

"I know so much, I like to see a place where I can put it to use," he said.

Grossman said he recently got a female acquaintance of his at the center interested in crosswords, and "it's helped her be more active and alert."

Studies have backed up Grossman's experience. A recent survey of people in their 70s found that those who routinely took part in intellectual activities such as reading, playing music or doing jigsaw or crossword puzzles were 2 1/2 times less likely to have Alzheimer's disease than those who are basically sofa spuds.

As Grossman points out, a crossword grid is a good place to deposit stuff you know that you can't put anywhere else.

"Like my lexicographomaniacal soul mates from the 1920s, I use the puzzles to hone my wits and to construct a small part of my personality," said Barron, "while the very triviality of the pursuit leaves me ample room to distance myself from it with irony and humor."

And if that doesn't give you something to think about, it at least gives you a 20-letter word for "crazy about crosswords."

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