Date: February 17, 2010
Byline: Brendan Emmett Quigley
Interview with Will Shortz
T-minus three days until the start of the ACPT. Where'd the time go? Well anyway, let's continue what's sure to be a short-lived series of interviews on the ole' BEQ.com site. This one's with the guy who's been to all 33 ACPTs, probably because he came up with the idea in the first place: Will Shortz. It's come a long way, for sure. But it sounds like he's just getting warmed up. Let's do this.
BEQ: Thirty-three years. Put that in perspective.
Will: I directed the first tournament when I was 25 and never expect to get to year two. So 33 of course is amazing.
BEQ: You did this all by yourself at 25?
Will: Yeah, the director at this new hotel in Stamford [CT], the Marriott, was looking for someone to direct a crossword tournament. My understanding is that he called [Dr. Eugene T.] Maleska at the Times, and Gene wasn't interested. But he referred this Marriott guy to Norton Rhodes, who was one of the great old constructors who happened to live in Stamford. And Norton recommneded me. I had just the previous fall founded the Fairfield County Puzzlers Group because it was so important to me to have friends in the puzzling world and have friends get together. So that's how I knew Norton.
That first year was wild. There hadn't been a crossword contest in the U.S. since the 1930s. And in 1978 I wasn't even aware of those, so I thought this was the first time it was being done. There was no model to go on, we were just winging it. I asked five top constructors to make puzzles for the Tournament. Jordan Lasher was one. Maura Jacobson. Got together some friends, Doug and Jan Heller, Norton and Anne Rhodes, Stephanie Spadaccini, Jordan Lasher and his wife. Altogether, there was eight of us. This was in the pre-computer era. Not only did every puzzle have to be scored by hand, and we had to add up the scores by hand, and add up the columns of figures by hand in order to rank everybody.
BEQ: How many contestants did you have?
Will: There were 149 contestants the first year.
BEQ: God! This must have taken forever.
Will:It was just exhausting. We didn't sleep at all Saturday night. The Tournament ended Sunday afternoon and the hotel was so pleased with the number of people who came and the publicity they got that they let Doug, Jan and me stay an extra night. So we all went to our rooms, slept for a couple hours. And then around 5:30 or 6:00. Doug and Jan came into my room, we plopped down on the bed and watched the Evening News.
We had a fantastic amount of publicity. It was on ABC and CBS Evening News that Sunday night. There was a great article in the New York Times. AP, UPI, Sports Illustrated. It was syndicated all over the country.
BEQ: You probably got the press because of the novelty factor.
BEQ: So, the "E" in "ESPN" stands for "Entertainment." And they already cover poker tournaments. Why isn't this event covered by anybody nowadays?
Will: I think this could make great TV. If you watch last year's finals from 2009. That's a gripping show. Especially when the playoffs came down to an amazing finale.
I guess some reasons it's not covered: it's too cerebral. Too egg-head-y. Maybe some people think it's nerdy. I don't know. I think a bigger problem is there isn't a crossword circuit. If crosswords are going to be successful on TV, it feels like there ought to be an ongoing program, not just once a year. I dunno, then you watch the National Spelling Bee. That pops up once a year that's on network television and it gets pretty good ratings.
There's no other competitive activity that I can think of where people at home can compete in real-time against the people watching. You watch your heroes from golf, football or basketball. You admire their skill but you can't compare yourself with what you're seeing on TV. With crosswords you actually could.
BEQ: Maybe we should start training Tyler Hinman so he can be the battle-scarred veteran to do color announcement. I guess you already have Neal Conan and Merl Reagle doing that.
Will: My idea when we started the finals with the announcers: you have a professional announcer who is Neal and then you got your expert in the puz biz who is Merl. They're both funny and they're both knowledgeable about puzzles. They report to everybody what's going on in the finals. If you're seated in the back of the room you can still follow what's going on. They bring added value to the playoffs. Merl can explain how the puzzle was constructed. Difficult parts of it And they're both funny as hell. It's a great show.
BEQ: Why are crosswords so overwhelming popular/concentrated in the Northeast corridor of the county?
Will: It's probably that there's more people concentrated here than anywhere else in the country. New York is also the cultural and intellectual capital of the country. And it's the influence of the New York Times.
BEQ: But you're from Indiana. Obviously puzzles must have reached you somehow.
Will: I never really dreamed of becoming the New York Times crossword editor. The opportunity became available in 1993 and so I went for it. My early years in the puzzle business never dreamed of being the crossword editor because I thought it was too intellectual and too cultural for me.
BEQ: So where do you see the ACPT in the future?
Will: I never want to lose the camaraderie. I'd love for it to be on TV. But I'm not going to change the rules or wrench the format to make it TV-friendly. TV would have to adapt to the tournament. I'd love for it to be larger. I'd like to bring crosswords to more people.