American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

 Crossword Tournament

In the News

Source: The New York Times
Date: August 19, 1996
Byline: Stacy Lu

Computers Making Inroads in Crossword Market

Puzzlers, take note: the biggest clue to doing crosswords in the '90s may be a nine-letter word that starts with a "C" -- computers.

Computer-generated puzzles are changing and expanding the crossword business. Although almost no one expects such puzzles to replace man-made ones completely, computer-generated puzzles now account for an increasing share of those on the market.

Crossword magazines began using software to mass-produce puzzles in the mid-1980s, and in the last several years individual puzzle writers have developed sophisticated programs for their own use. Commercial software is available for creating original crosswords, and puzzle sites abound on the Internet.

For many, computer-generated puzzles are indistinguishable from those created by people. But some critics worry that technology will produce bland, standardized puzzles, without any of the wit or nuance that have made crosswords a favorite American pastime.

Puzzle-making is well suited for computers. What machines handle best is the sort of complex and highly analytical process involved in making a crossword. It must assign words from a data base that fit both horizontally and vertically in a grid that meets classical American standards. That means a symmetrical pattern containing no two-letter words or uncrossed letters.

Filling in a grid requires a huge data base of words and phrases, which puzzle constructors usually gather from existing lists like dictionaries or reference works, while contributing their own favorites. Finally, the computer numbers the grid. In all but the simplest puzzles, the writer will then create the clues.

Crossword magazines took to computers first, partly because their less-complicated puzzles are easier to mass produce, and partly to satisfy a large and growing audience.

Puzzle magazine newsstand sales in the United States and Canada total approximately $70 million a year for 170 titles, or 1,200 to 1,300 issues, according to Meg McMann, vice president of publisher research and sales programs for Warner Publisher Services, a national distributor based in New York. While the number of titles has not changed recently, many now publish 16 issues a year, up from 12, Ms. McMann said.

Publishers are circumspect about how much of their product actually comes from computers. Still, Fran Danon, editor in chief of Penny Marketing of Norwalk, Conn., which owns Dell Magazines and Penny Press, said technology had a "tremendous" impact on her business.

"Only with the aid of computers have puzzle publishers been able to expand their lines," she said. "When I started working at Penny Press in 1983 we had five titles, and now there are 32." All told, Penny Press and Dell publish 62 titles a year.

Doug Heller, a crossword constructor in Flourtown, Pa., said he supervised the development of a computer program in 1988 for Kappa Publishing Group Inc. of Fort Washington, Pa., that helped the publisher increase its number of annual issues of puzzle magazines to about 800 from 200. Heller's latest version, which he developed for his own use, creates about 30 relatively simple puzzles a second.

Nevertheless, this same assembly line potential has aficionados worried.

"There are puzzles in the print media that are disseminated without a whole lot of quality," said Stanley Newman, managing director of puzzles and games for Times Books, a division of Random House Inc., in turn a unit of Advance Publications Inc. "Without the guardianship of professional editors, there's going to be a barge full of garbage swimming out to sea."

But Eric Albert of Newton, Mass., a former computer scientist for Bell Laboratories well known in the crossword industry for his elaborate proprietary software, argues that simplistic and poorly made puzzles done by hand are the problem.

"They're filled with weird old words, really boring definitions, virtually no humor whatsoever. Those puzzles are doomed. Computers can do them better or faster.

"The most difficult crossword puzzles to construct are the easier ones, and they're the ones editors pay the most for, because they're in shorter supply," he said. "With software, here's a way we can jumble all the words that people know."

Albert is one of the few constructors who supports himself entirely by puzzle-making. Most daily publications pay $15 to $75 a puzzle, and specialty magazines and commercial projects pay $100 to $500.

As well as compiling a huge word data base, Albert has rated each word for its suitability in puzzle-solving. Although this is a gargantuan project that even he admits takes "a certain amount of lunacy," he expects that someday people will probably sell such ratings systems.

Other constructors, like Bob Klahn of Wilmington, Del., have written programs that create grids, but prefer to produce puzzles in tandem with their computers. "It makes perfect sense to have the computer draw diagrams for you," he said. "I don't want it to be a substitute for mental gymnastics."

Most modern crosswords also have themes, which still need to be conceived by a human. Ditto creative, witty clues.

Yet crossword computing quality has already fooled the experts. Will Shortz, the crossword editor of The New York Times, estimates he receives about 75 puzzle submissions a week, more than any other editor. He said he choose the best crossword puzzles for the newspaper regardless of whether they are done by hand or with a computer, and occasionally could not tell which was which.

"If the person submits the puzzle with handwritten letters in the grid, or if it's a very poor crossword, I can assume it's done by hand," he said. "Otherwise, it can be hard to tell."

Some industry leaders hope that electronic puzzles will help attract a new audience of computer users of all ages. Newman of Random House, the largest crossword book publisher at 30 titles a year, said the company was also enthusiastic about the possibilities of on-line crosswords. He believes that print and computer puzzlers are two almost entirely different audiences.

"The potential is there to reach the type of people that don't do crosswords now -- that don't buy books and magazines but are active on the Web and are software buyers. They're waiting for the right presentation to have it enter their world," Newman said.

Packaged software programs have had modest success. Lyriq International of Cheshire, Conn., issued its Lyriq Crosswords Premium Edition -- consisting of puzzles from The Washington Post, Penny Press and others -- on diskette in 1991. The product sold 35,000 copies at about $10 each in the first year, according to Randal Hujar, a Lyriq co-founder.

"When you look at the dynamics of who does crosswords, the overlap was not too high," he said. "But hobbies were moving to the computer, newspapers were going electronic, and we thought crosswords were going to be heading in that direction."

In January, Lyriq was purchased by Enteractive Inc., a New York multimedia publisher, in a stock transaction valued at about $3 million.

Do-it-yourself crosswords have been on the market for several years. Cogix Corp. in San Anselmo, Calif., makes Crossword Wizard, software that can produce an infinite number of puzzles. Total Wizard sales since the product was introduced in 1994 have totaled more than $2 million, said Camilo Wilson, the president of Cogix.

A bigger ticket for crossword expansion may be the World Wide Web, whose audience seems to have an insatiable appetite for games., a site developed by Interactive Imaginations Inc. of New York, features puzzles by Random House, which owns an equity stake in Riddler. Visitors to the site -- about 7,500 a day so far -- must enter demographic information to register for play, which determines which ads the player will see. Advertisers have included Toyota, Apple, Microsoft, Capital Records, Ziff Davis and NBC.

"From April 1995 to July 1996, we've increased our revenue twentyfold," said Michael Paolucci, co-founder of Interactive Imaginations.

To date, however, there are still too many puzzlers using old-fashioned pen and paper for technology's takeover to be complete. Merl Reagle, whom many name as one of the best constructors in America, has been making puzzles for 40 years. Reagle writes his crosswords in cafes or in bed, using a computer only to check for form errors.

"I've been doing it for so long it's like second nature," he said.

Besides, Reagle said, crossword fans like to test their mettle against a human, not a computer. "They like matching wits with me," he said. "And I know what makes a puzzle hard enough for it to be a puzzle, but not so hard that you can't solve it."

Return to In the News Index