Date: June 30, 2006
Byline: Mike Cassidy
There's nothing puzzling about prof's success
Byron Walden is one cool cucumber.
Forget that he's an associate math professor by day and a diabolical crossword puzzle-maker by night. Never mind that his field — crosswords, not math — is sizzling hot. And ignore the fact that the Santa Clara University academic is a movie star.
Invite him to coffee, and he'll show up in Bermuda shorts, casual shirt, bright white tennies. Then he'll talk to you like he's any old Joe.
Did I mention movie star?
"Of course, I'm only on screen for about 15 seconds," says Walden, 42. "It's still kind of cool."
Kind of cool? No. Way cool.
Walden's 15 seconds comes in "Wordplay," a film that is getting its own 15 minutes. The flick is generating that kind of hip, indie buzz that makes a movie a must-see.
It has elevated crossword conquerors and New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz to cult status. And Walden, who teaches computer science and math, is elevated with them.
"He's one of the best," Shortz says by phone. "He just sprang on the scene a couple of years ago and almost overnight became one of the top puzzle-makers."
Plaudits from an expert
Shortz gushes over Walden's work. He pulls out a Walden puzzle and begins a running commentary.
"He has four, 15-letter answers in the grid, which is very difficult to achieve." Think: "Radio Free Europe," and "Jennifer Aniston."
"This is amazing," Shortz says.
All of which is why Shortz asked Walden to build the championship puzzle for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Shortz's annual puzzlefest in Connecticut.
As luck would have it, a little known filmmaker had decided the March 2005 tournament had the makings of a documentary. Sure, Walden noticed the film crews.
"I thought maybe, maybe this is going to make it to a DVD that you can order from his mom."
Instead, Patrick Creadon's "Wordplay" debuted at Sundance and is now playing at a theater near you.
"I went to see it at Sundance thinking, this will be my last chance to see this," Walden says.
But, he says, what he saw was what many critics say they saw: A very good movie, sprinkled with celebrity puzzle-solvers. Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, the Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina, none of whom Walden actually met.
Now Walden is something of a celebrity himself — though fame didn't actually come overnight.
He solved puzzles for years before designing his own. He started submitting them to the New York Times about five years ago. It took a couple of tries to break through, but Walden has had about 30 puzzles published in the Times.
Walden says a mathematical mind is an advantage. Crosswords are about symmetry, rules, letter counts and intersecting words.
The work is not necessarily the province of poets.
"Poets like words for words' sake," Walden says. "We tend to treat words more brutally than they do."
"Wordplay" has been described as a sort of revenge of the nerds. But Walden, whose scene involves a brief chat with contestants, hardly fits the nerd role. Trim, with bleach-blond hair, he looks like a surfer dude just off the beach in Laguna.
No, Walden isn't mobbed by autograph hounds. But he does have fans — starting with his parents, Leon and Carroll Walden, of Frankfort, Ky.
"We were tickled about it," Leon Walden says of his son's movie role.
The couple don't see many movies.
"But," Leon says, "this will be one that we'll make."
No need even to puzzle over it.