American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

The Riddler: Confessions of a Crossword Constructor

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: March 16, 1997
Byline: Merl Reagle

The Riddler: Confessions of a Crossword Constructor

Merl Reagle creates the magazine's crossword puzzle.

There's a fine line between entertainment and torture. I ought to know. I make crossword puzzles for a living.

In fact, I'm the guy who makes the crossword for this magazine every week. I'm called a "constructor," although I like the sound of "puzzle composer" better, or maybe even something adorable like "doctor of letters." I'm fully aware that there are people out there in Solver Land who would like to call me something else. But in the "puzz biz," I'm a constructor.

And I've been constructing for a long time. In fact, I sold my first crossword to the New York Times when I was 16 (31 years ago). By then I was a constructing veteran - I made my first crossword when I was 6. But more on that later.

First, I want to tell you about Tarzan.

Ten years ago I lived in Santa Monica, Calif., one block from a deli on Wilshire Boulevard called Izzy's. I used to get up around 6 a.m., walk over to Izzy's, have a cup of B.S. coffee (Before Starbucks), pull out some grid paper, and start constructing.

One morning I noticed Ron Ely come in about 6:15. If your Hollywood knowledge is a little rusty, he's the guy who played Tarzan on TV and Doc Savage in the movies. He's about 6 foot 4, muscular, blondish, with a big dimpled grin. He sat at a booth, chatted with a waitress, ordered breakfast, pulled out the Los Angeles Times - and started working the crossword puzzle.

How long I stared at this tableau I can only guess. Because what I was seeing was "Ron Ely, crossword solver," instead of what I was used to, "Ron Ely, crossword answer." How many zillions of times had I seen ELY in puzzles, clued as "actor Ron" or "TV's Tarzan"?

So I struck up a conversation with him. Yes, he was a fan of crosswords, but no, he didn't like the daily one in the L.A. Times. It took too many "liberties," he said, and too often the definitions were not even accurate.

One morning I came in and saw him over in a booth, already working the puzzle. The sun was just coming in over his shoulders. (The surreal nature of this scene wasn't lost on me, either; this is just how Doc Savage might have looked at his Fortress of Solitude. Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze - and Brains - working a crossword.)

"How's it going?" I said.

"Terrible!" he answered. He pointed to a section he'd erased several times, and I soon saw the problem. The clue was "actor John" and he had written WAYNE, but the answer was PAYNE. (John Payne appeared in such films as Dodsworth, The Razor's Edge, and Miracle on 34th Street). I pointed this out. And this was actor Ron's reaction:

"John Payne?! Heck, he's no actor! You have to be able to act to be an actor! See, that's the kind of flagrant liberties this puzzle takes."

Flash-forward to 1997. If Ron Ely is still solving the daily L.A. Times crossword, and if he feels as strongly now as he did then about "taking liberties," he must have thrown a NordicTrack across the room when he saw the following (which appeared last month):

The clue was "So Now A Real Stumper." And the answer turned out to be SNARS - the initial letters of the clue!

This seems to break a rather important little rule we have in puzzlemaking: You can't make words up. I realize that some of the real words you see in crosswords look more made-up than SNARS looks, but if I'm constructing and I get stuck in a corner and the only thing that will save me from redoing the whole mess is FRELM, I can't just clue it as "French tree . . . for short" and expect to see it sail into print.

In the pantheon of puzzle patheticness, SNARS beat the previous record holder, NERS, a New York Times entry from a dozen years back. It was clued as "Abner's father, and others." Now, it's true that in the Bible there was a Ner, and yes, he was Abner's father, but "and others"? How many guys named Ner could there be? I've barely even heard of the first Ner.

Plus, doesn't "Abner" mean something like "son of Ner"? Isn't the answer sitting right there in the clue, "Ab-NER'S father"? If there were a "Top 10 Rules of Clue Writing," wouldn't "Don't use the answer in the clue" be toward the top?

All crosswords are not created equal, but most of the ones in newspapers at least play by the rules. And there are lots and lots of rules. So even if you don't know much about crossword puzzles but have always been curious (something I've been called many times), here's a meandering Inside-the-Gridway tour of the puzzle biz.

In the Early Days the rule was (to semi-paraphrase Johnnie Cochran): If it was in the dictionary and it fit, it was legit, and that was it. This was because, in the 1920s and '30s, multiple-word entries were not allowed in crosswords. You could have BIG and you could have BEN, but you couldn't have BIG BEN.

Unfortunately, this meant that any weird word or its variant spelling might be called on to finish a corner. That's how words like EMEER and EMEU got in. It didn't matter that they were more commonly spelled EMIR and EMU - the dictionary said the other ways were legitimate variants and the dictionary ruled. Another one is ERAL, meaning "pertaining to a historic time." But just try using it in a sentence: "In a more eral vein, how do you feel about the Cenozoic?"

The more these types of words proliferated, the more crosswords became disconnected from the Real World. I try to avoid all variant spellings and the truly obscure crossword-ese, and if you ever find ERAL in a puzzle of mine, I'll give you 20 bucks.

And I'm not alone. In the 1980s a new group of puzzlemakers saw that crosswords were starting to remind them of their worst teachers from grade school. Wouldn't it be more fun and attract more solvers if puzzles were a little more playful? Just a smidge trickier and a lot wittier? Of course, what's witty to some may be nitwitty to others, but at least there would be the psychic mini-reward of a light bulb going off when you got the answer.

This was when such 1980s games as Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy! were having huge mainstream success, and yet it seemed as if the crossword puzzle was just sitting there like a block of granite.

The first things that had to change were the themes. For all of you neophytes out there, a crossword puzzle - especially a big Sunday one - typically is about something. The long answers relate to a subject or a category usually hinted at by the puzzle's title. An old-style crossword theme might be "great American writers" or "phrases containing the word 'blue.' " A New School theme would be more like "movies that shouldn't be shown together," like DRIVING MISS DAISY / NUTS. The rest of the puzzle, the shorter words, would remain more conventional but have a balance of subjects, from Roman history to TV trivia to Eastern religion - just like Jeopardy!

Of course, the downside is, if you never watch TV or go to the movies or read the news, you'll be at a slight disadvantage. If strictly dictionary-based crosswords are your thing, no need to worry - that's what most crossword magazines are full of. (Heck, I actually used to read the dictionary as a kid. But more on the perils of that a little later.)

Then there are taste considerations. One word with excellent letters that would have bailed me out of many a tough corner is ENEMA, but, as we say, it comes up a little short in the entertainment department. Ditto PUS and RETCH.

Entertainment is exactly what a crossword is supposed to be - a rather bookish one, granted, but an entertainment nonetheless. This I learned from the first crossword editor of the New York Times, Margaret P. Farrar, when I sent her my first crosswords in 1966. And in a very real sense, her story is the story of crosswords.

The crossword puzzle as we now know it was invented in 1913 by Arthur Wynne, an editor at the old New York World newspaper. It caught on and had become a raging fad by the early '20s, when another editor was put in charge of the puzzle at the World. Her name was Margaret Petherbridge.

In 1924, Margaret was approached by two guys who wanted to start a publishing company. After seeing how popular crossword puzzles had become, they asked her and two friends to put together the first crossword puzzle book. The book was a surprise smash, and the two guys - named Dick Simon and Max Schuster - had a best-seller with their very first book. That's how Simon & Schuster was born.

By and by, Margaret left the World, got married (and became Margaret P. Farrar), and continued to edit puzzle books. In 1942, when the New York Times decided to start its own crossword puzzle, Margaret got the call. (By the way, her married name is pronounced "fairer," as in "a fairer editor I've never met," which is utterly true.)

Margaret Farrar is responsible for virtually all of the rules of crossword construction that the Major Leaguers follow today, which include:

In theory, all of these rules are supposed to give puzzles a more pleasing, designed look (like a rug or a mosaic) and to separate the artists from the amateurs. In theory.

I still have that first letter I got back from Margaret when I was 16. In it she tells why two of the puzzles I submitted were unacceptable.

One had DEAD AS A DOORNAIL and ROTTEN IN DENMARK - "not very pleasant terms." The second puzzle had EDEMA and RALE ("that's the death rattle, not very pleasant either"). She wrote, "Crosswords are an entertainment. Avoid things like death, disease, war and taxes - the subway solver gets enough of that in the rest of the paper."

Entertainment? Subway solver? These ideas had never entered my puny head.

But the third puzzle was OK. And that's how I sold my first crossword puzzle to the New York Times as a teenager - by accidentally not being gross.

When I was 4 or 5, my mom and dad (Evelyn and Sam) got me a set of Lincoln Logs for Christmas. Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Kenner Girder Builder Sets - I liked construction kits of all kinds. When I learned what words were, I used them the same way.

I remember making my first crossword puzzle when I was 6. I lived just off the White Horse Pike in Lindenwold, in a house with a white picket fence. I was sitting on the living room floor under a claw-foot table. I had a sheet of grid paper and a pencil, and since I could spell the names of all the kids in my class, I started hooking them together, crossword-style.

After I had been making little crosswords like this for several days, someone said, "Oh, I see. You're just making Neanderthal versions of the ones in the paper." I looked up brightly and said, "Thanks, Mom!" and went off to look up what Neanderthal meant.

By the time I was 8, I was making crosswords based on the ones in our local paper. On weekends Mom would drop me off at Grandmom's house, which was fine by me because as soon as Mom left, Grandmom would always open a round can full of potato chips and spoon me out a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

But the main reason I liked going over there was that Grandmom had a huge 1919 dictionary that, basically, I read all day. It was Webster's New International, the first in the series that is now up to Webster's Third New International. (Webster's Third, by the way, contains one of the greatest word-and-definition combos I've ever seen in a dictionary. The entry word is Ntlakyapamuk and the definition is "Thompson." That's all, just "Thompson.") I sat in a corner of Grandmom's dining room with that huge dictionary on my lap and made crossword puzzles.

One time I remember making a puzzle where I needed a nine-letter word with an F in the fourth spot and a B in the sixth spot. (I still have this puzzle, by the way.) The only word I could find in that 1919 dictionary that would fit was SELF-ABUSE, which was defined simply as "masturbation." I had no idea what that was, but it fit, so I wrote it in. Today I would probably use something colorful like WOLFSBANE or DRAFT BEER.

Right about now some of you may be thinking: Merl, I'm tired of being sane. Isn't there some crossword contest I can enter to drive myself absolutely nuts?

Sure there is. It's short notice and a bit of a drive from Philadelphia, but next weekend you can do just that at the oldest and largest continuously held event of its kind in the world: the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn.

Granted, spending a weekend in a hotel with 300 crossword fanatics may not be most people's idea of a good time, but to me it's a puzzler's love-in. I missed the first one, back in 1978. But I got to the second one, which was how I met Mrs. Farrar - she was giving out the prizes. That was also how I met Will Shortz.

Will is the current editor of the New York Times crossword (he took over in 1993) and the Sunday morning "Puzzlemaster" on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition. He's a well-spoken, dapper guy in his 40s (just like me, except for the well-spoken, dapper part). He's also the only person in America with a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles. To get it, he had to go to a university that lets you write your own major, as long as you can explain why the one you've chosen is worthy of study. Will, evidently, is a very good explainer.

It was Will who started the tournament two decades ago, and he's hosted it every year since. I've been one of the judges for almost as long. (My judgely duties include picking up puzzles, grading puzzles, and helping Will schlep stuff in from his car.)

Though the tournament is the main attraction, the event is also something of a convention. While some are there as hard-core competitors, most attend for the camaraderie and challenge of solving specially composed tournament-level puzzles. A lot of game-playing goes on, and there are seminars. Even a chance to be called a cruciverbalist. (That's a fancy term for crossword fan. In general, puzzlemakers enjoy being called cruciverbalists about as much as fishermen enjoy being called piscatorialists.) Friday night will be the first chance to catch glimpses of the best players in the Majors. You'll probably see last year's winner, Doug Hoylman, a 52-year-old actuary from Chevy Chase, Md. During a weekend of words and more words, Doug is the strong silent type - just about the only word he says all weekend is "done," when he finishes the championship puzzle before anyone else. He's not called the Ice Man for nothing - he's won the tournament four times.

Another four-time winner is Jon Delfin, a 42-year-old musician from Manhattan. One of the highlights of the 1995 tournament was Jon performing newly found puzzle songs of the 1920s, such as "Crossword Mama, You Puzzle Me, But Papa's Gonna Figure You Out." Also on hand will be another Manhattanite, Ellen Ripstein, who has finished in the top five 13 times but has never won the grand prize. She's known as the Susan Lucci of the tournament.

One final digression.

Last year I was halfway through watching a video one afternoon when I got a phone call. It was Brit Hume, the White House correspondent for ABC News.

In 1991 I'd sent him a test copy of my first book of Sunday crosswords, and he'd been taking the book with him on Air Force One and any other flight he had to take in order to cover President Clinton. It was a good way to pass the time, he said.

By January 1996, Brit still had not finished the puzzles in the book (he admits that, as a solver, he's on the "methodical" side), and there he was somewhere over Bosnia in a C-17 with President Clinton and he got stuck on a clue. Naturally, he called the President over (and in case you don't know, Mr. Clinton is an ace crossword solver who can polish off the New York Times Sunday puzzle in about 20 minutes - in ink, with no mistakes).

So here's Brit Hume conferring with Bill Clinton on a clue in my first crossword book in a plane somewhere over Bosnia - and one of the White House staff photographers takes a picture.

And Brit says to me on the phone, "Would you like a copy?"

I can't remember what I said exactly, but I think half of it was "Holy." I hung up the phone a little dazed.

Then I walked back into the living room to continue watching the video I'd rented, which was - no kidding - The American President.

Fortunately for many of the contestants in Stamford next weekend, Clinton, a speed-solver, apparently won't be competing. (To save time, he carefully employs the hard-core competitors' little-e technique. Since a capital E has those three time-consuming, drag-inducing pencil strokes, and there can be 30 or more E's in a puzzle, this will save a whopping six seconds or so.)

Crossword puzzles may be the ultimate non-spectator sport, so suffice it to say that the tournament is like a big SAT - all verbal, no math - except that nothing happens when you fail miserably. It all builds up to Sunday, when, in the morning, everyone solves, or attempts to solve, or rips to shreds, the dreaded seventh puzzle (which - what a coincidence! - is being constructed by me this year).

After that, the pressure is really on. The finalists take center stage and, using erasable markers, attack the championship puzzle, a 15-by-15-square puzzle blown up to 3 1/2 feet across, so that the crowd can watch every mistake as it unfolds . . . live!

Ellen "Susan Lucci" Ripstein - will this be your year?