Date: December 14, 2005
Byline: Warren Wightman
Will Shortz is not a fiend
Obfuscatory, but genial about it: Will Shortz.
Roars of laughter and approval billowed from the Downtown United Presbyterian Church last Thursday night as Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor, charmed the sell-out Rochester Arts and Lecture crowd with secrets of the trade. He had the normally polite and reserved audience shouting answers to tricky crossword clues and volunteering to participate in his mind-bending word games.
It's a pleasure for me to report that Will Shortz is a not a fiend. He is a very genial fellow. Though fans of the Times puzzles have a love-hate relationship with him.
Shortz doesn't make up the puzzles himself. He has a stable of about 300 constructors who do that, but he usually rewrites about half of the clues, adding OBFUSCATORY ambiguities that turn run-of-the-mill puzzles into pun-filled stumpers.
Google gives you 120,000 references for "Will Shortz." I won't duplicate the bio stuff here, but one oft-repeated factoid is worth including. He is the only recipient ever of an academic degree in enigmatology — a study program he crafted for himself at Indiana University. He also earned a law degree, but got hooked on puzzles and never took the bar exam.
Sixty-four million Americans are cruciverbalists — devotees of crossword puzzles. That's considerably more than almost any non-political, non-religious group you can think of. If they all agreed on anything they'd be a force to be reckoned with. That's not likely. Crossworders are an individualistic bunch (an OXYMORON?).
Crosswords have earned a lot of good press recently as evidence comes in that challenging mental activity keeps brains alert and agile. Some studies even show that new nerve cells grow when we exercise our brains with problem-solving activities.
Crossword puzzles, like jazz, were invented in America (1913), and like jazz, spread back to Europe. In WWII, Britain's top secret decoding center at Bletchley Park recruited expert crossword solvers to decrypt German military communications created on the notorious Enigma machine.
In the '20s, crossword puzzles became an international craze. A volume of crosswords was Simon and Schuster's first published book. Fads, like the Charleston, Hula Hoops, Yo-Yo's and Pet Rocks have come and gone, but crosswords have earned a permanent place in our culture. The New York Times, Shortz told us with a knowing smile, was the last metropolitan newspaper to get in on what has turned out to be a moneymaking bonanza.
Shortz started, and presides over, the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held every March in Stamford, Connecticut. Over a weekend, several hundred puzzlers work against the clock, vying for the top purse of $4000.
For Times puzzles, Shortz has strict rules. Obscenities don't make it. ACNE is about the worst physical affliction allowed. Cussing is limited to words like DARN, DRAT, and ZOUNDS. The Times crossword is thus a rare BASTION of predictable decency.
Other rules are technical. No two-letter words, no letters that are not a part of both a DOWN and an ACROSS entry. The black squares must make a symmetrical pattern. Too many black squares make the puzzle too easy, so the ratio of white to black has to be at least 70/30. And you must be able to trace a path of filled-in letters all the way from the first square to the last with no isolated enclaves.
Anyone can submit a puzzle, but constructing one is devilishly difficult. Shortz gets an average of 70 submissions a week — and replies to them all.
Asked about his staff, Shortz CHORTLED: "I'm it." He has help with the annual tournament, but at the Times he's the whole ENCHILADA. He's not at the office that much — only an hour a week — and sleeps till 10:30 a.m.
The pleasure of solving a tough puzzle is PALPABLE. When all else goes wrong with your day, you can always GIRD up your LOINS and say to yourself: "Well, I solved the puzzle — and that's not nothing."