Date: July 2, 2006
Byline: Nick Madigan
Crossword king stars in movie
One usually pictures crossword solvers as solitary, studious, anti-social types, bespectacled bards who find bliss only in arriving at the right word in the right place.
Not Will Shortz.
As editor of what aficionados consider the ne plus ultra of the craft, The New York Times crossword puzzle, Shortz is the gregarious ambassador of puzzledom, the man who almost single-handedly is elevating puzzles to the entertainment mainstream.
"He's the Errol Flynn of crossword puzzles," Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show and a committed puzzle solver, says of Shortz in Wordplay, a documentary about crosswords that features Shortz as its central character alongside passionate puzzlers like Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls and former Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina (now with the Yankees).
The high point of the film, which opened in Baltimore on Friday, is the culmination of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held annually in the spring in a hotel in Stamford, Conn. Shortz has been its host since founding the event in 1978.
At a time when spelling bees are making it onto prime time television — as is every other human contest imaginable, from singing to eating insects to racing across the planet — it seems inevitable that crossword puzzles, with their intense, brain-busting challenges, should end up with similar exposure.
In an interview, Shortz, trim, neat and mustachoied, self-effacingly said the attention that Wordplay has received is a bit of a surprise.
"From my standpoint, I didn't think the movie would turn out as well as it has," he said. "I thought it might be something they could sell to PBS or to a late-night cable channel."
Instead, Wordplay, directed by veteran cameraman Patrick Creadon, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was the only American documentary to get snapped up for a distribution deal, under which it is unspooling on screens around the country.
"That's very cool," said Shortz, who is far from the ponderous, pontificating wordsmith one might imagine. "It's an honor, it's flattering, and it's an experience I've never had before. I'm very pleased this subject will reach a lot of people who've never thought much about crosswords before."
Not that the craft of puzzling is short of adherents. Shortz cited a Gallup poll's conclusion several years ago that more than 50 million Americans solve crosswords at least occasionally. From The Times, whose daily circulation is more than 1.2 million, the Monday-to-Saturday puzzles — each with 76 clues, progressively more difficult as the week goes on — are syndicated to 150 other publications in the United States and Canada, while the paper's larger Sunday puzzle (circulation: 1.7 million), goes out to about 300 publications. Those figures do not begin to count the people who do the puzzles online.
Shortz' word games also get weekly play on National Public Radio, where since 1989 he has held the title of "puzzle master" on Weekend Edition Sunday, heard by about 2.5 million people over 600 affiliated stations around the country.
"Probably more people hear my puzzles on NPR than solve my puzzles in The Times," Shortz said. "My radio puzzles are sort of solver-friendly, in the sense that it's a general audience I'm trying to entertain and amuse. The nice thing about NPR is that when my puzzle comes on for seven minutes, you have to listen to me in order to get to the next piece, so I have sort of a captive audience on the radio. Whereas if you're reading The New York Times, if there's my crossword puzzle on the page and you're not interested, you can flip the page."
Liane Hansen, the longtime host of Weekend Edition Sunday, whose idea it was to have Shortz play word games with listeners, said she once gave him a T-shirt affectionately emblazoned with the legend, "Mr. Know-It-All."
"I love that I can still learn things from him," she said. "He's dashing, he's smart, he's funny, he's contemporary, he's unpredictable, he's diabolical. He wants you to work. He wants you to hit that ball back over the net and make it a game, and he's delighted when you know the answer."
Shortz, born in 1952 and raised on an Arabian horse farm in Indiana, is the only person in the world to hold a college degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles, which Indiana University awarded him in 1974 after allowing him to set up his own curriculum and give it a name. He took over The Times' puzzle in 1993 after the death of Eugene T. Maleska, who had held the post since 1977 and had only two predecessors, beginning with Margaret Petherbridge Farrar in 1942 and Will Weng in 1967.
"When I started at The Times I was 36 years younger than my predecessor, Eugene Maleska," Shortz said. "So there was a break in style when I started, philosophical and cultural. His crosswords were bookish and academic. In my puzzles, I wanted to be playful and deceptive. I wanted my puzzles to have a lot more modern culture than his did. There's a television section in the paper so television is fair game. Before I started there were no brand names. My feeling is that brand names are part of popular culture so we have brand names in the puzzle."
Shortz said that, as he pieces together themes and clues, he assumes "that a New York Times crossword solver is reading the rest of the paper and is generally aware of everything that's going on in the world."
For the most part, Shortz' job at The Times entails editing other people's crosswords and preparing them for publication. That's more complicated than it sounds, given that every word has to fit seamlessly into a complicated grid in which each word's position is dependent on those surrounding it. He writes or oversees about 30,000 clues a year. Of those, about 15 usually end up being wrong, each corrected on a subsequent day in the same manner as mistakes in stories.
"That's rule No. 1," he said. "Everything has to be right. But beyond that, I want everything to be at the right level of difficulty, a good mix of subjects, clues that are fun, fresh and interesting, ones perhaps that have never been done."
Shortz, who receives between 60 and 75 puzzles a week, many of them from regular contributors, invariably substitutes about half the clues submitted with his own.
"For someone who writes really good clues, I might only change five or 10 percent," he said. "For a newcomer, I might change 95 percent."
It is rare, he said, for a first-time applicant to find his puzzle published in The Times, but anyone is welcome to try. "It's very difficult to get a puzzle of a high enough quality — fresh enough vocabulary, interesting theme — to get accepted," he said. It should go without saying that puzzle constructors, as they are called, tend to be good spellers, but they must also be good at building grids and coming up with fresh themes that tie the answers together "in some fun, amusing, punny way," Shortz said.
Then there is the writing of clues, perhaps the hardest task of all. "There are people who write great themes and who can construct terrific grids, but aren't great clue writers, and I will still accept their puzzles because I know that if necessary I can rewrite all the clues myself," Shortz said. "But it's wonderful to find somebody who is skilled in all those things. Those are my favorite people."
The film features two professional puzzle constructors, Trip Payne — a three-time winner of the Stamford tournament — and Merl Reagle, who is seen building a puzzle in the comfort of his favorite diner in Tampa, Fla.
"Crosswords fit into a basic human need to figure things out," Reagle tells director Creadon, who conducted all the interviews himself while simultaneously operating the camera.
Bill Clinton, filmed in his office in Harlem, confidently does his crossword with a felt-tip pen, as opposed to other solvers who prefer the safety of a pencil in case of errors. The former president, who was known to be a fan of Shortz' work and had written to him saying so, is properly admiring of the editor's talents, particularly in his assembly of the most difficult puzzle of the week, which runs on Saturdays.
"Sometimes I picked up the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle and I would go through way over half the clues before I'll know the answer to one," Clinton says in the film.
Stewart, also a pen man, is unsurprisingly less reverent. With the newspaper spread out before him on a messy desk, he says the Times puzzle "is the one for me."
"I will solve, in a hotel, the USA Today puzzle, but I don't feel good about myself," says Stewart. He then goes on to wax eloquent about Shortz, whom he had figured would be short in stature before meeting him.
"When you imagine crossword guy, you imagine he's 13 to 14 inches tall, doesn't care to go more than five feet without his inhaler, and yet he's a giant man," Stewart says, as he struggles to complete that day's puzzle. "I believe he could best me in a physical joust."
Apparently, similar sentiments are shared by legions of puzzlers around the country.
One such crossword aficionado is Nasser Shukayr. "Will Shortz is one of the greatest editors ever," Shukayr, who described himself as a "full-time square-dance caller," wrote in an e-mail from Harlingen, Texas.
"Crossword fans love accurate puzzles with clever clues which make you think. Most puzzles in mainstream newspapers and magazines and such are far too easy and/or mundane. Conclusion: Most people don't really enjoy thinking."
The answer man
Speaking from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport the other day as he was preparing to board a flight to Los Angeles, Creadon, the Wordplay director, said his circle of friends thought he was crazy when he suggested making a film about Shortz. But Creadon and his wife, Christine O'Malley, who produced the film, were undeterred.
"Here's a guy whose job description is 'puzzle master,' we see his name every day, we hear him on the radio, but we've never seen him," Creadon said. "We don't even know what he looks like. We don't know anything about him. That's an interesting place to start for a documentary."
Creadon, a lifelong puzzle fan, said there was another factor that persuaded him to make the Shortz movie, which ended up costing $500,000, much of it raised from the couple's friends and relatives.
"We loved the idea that he's the man with all the answers," he said. "He's the Wizard of Oz."
It was important, Creadon said, to treat the subject with the respect it deserved, even if the film has its funny moments. "I don't know if crosswords really are a nerdy pursuit, or if we're all a little bit nerdy, but I didn't want to make a movie that made fun of these people," said Creadon, who edited the film in a spare bedroom and just last week was able to begin paying back the film's investors.
In his interview with The Sun, Shortz acknowledged the "nerd" factor, after noting that one of the tournament contestants in the film, Ellen Ripstein, says on camera that solving puzzles is "kind of a nerdy thing."
"It's a very large subculture, one you don't hear about much because it's a solitary activity," said Shortz, who sold his first puzzle professionally when he was 14. "It is a little nerdy, I guess. I'm a little nerdy. You have to be a little nerdy to do what I do, because you have to know a lot of stuff. I read a lot, my brain soaks up a lot of stuff. But I would like to think that I can pass in society not as a nerd. You know, I could go to a party and if I never mention the fact that I'm the New York Times crossword editor, I think people might guess that I'm a normal person. But once crosswords come up, then that whole geeky side comes out."