Date: February 13, 2006
Byline: Greg Hill
Nary a cross word over crosswords or other puzzles
"Brett Hull has been one of the most prolific scorers in NHL history," according to Hockey-fans.com, and most authorities concur he will "be a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame when he retires."
The son of hockey legend Bobby Hull agrees, admitting, "I 'm good at everything." He also confesses to being "patient with crossword puzzles and the most impatient golfer."
However, as recent letters to the News Miner indicate, some readers are using cross words about crosswords. For some, completing a crossword puzzle is paramount, while others enjoy parsing out clever clues. Fairbanksans take their crosswords very seriously, but their puzzle passion pales beside Will Shortz'.
Mr. Shortz is the New York Times crossword puzzle editor and also the editor of our paper's crosswords. Regardless of your position on the easy-versus-hard crossword controversy, you have to admit Shortz is the most puzzling fellow around.
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Besides writing and editing more than 100 books on puzzles, he's the first and only accredited puzzle scholar, having obtained a bachelor's degree in enigmatology from Indiana University. Moreover, his 20,000-volume library of puzzle books is the largest in the world, and while he doesn't own the oldest puzzle book, he does possess the only extant copy of the world's first true crossword puzzle.
Acrostics and word squares have been around a long time. Romans were playing acrostics when Vesuvius blew, and, "As far back as the sixth century B.C., puzzle-loving Greeks were inscribing word squares into statues," according to Coral Amende's "The Crossword Obsession: the History and Lore of the World's Most Popular Pastime."
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "acrostic" as "A poem or series of lines in which certain letters, usually the first in each line, form a name, motto, or message when read in sequence," and a word square is "A set of words arranged in a square such that they read the same horizontally and vertically." A crossword, however, is "A puzzle in which an arrangement of numbered squares is to be filled with words running both across and down in answer to correspondingly numbered clues."
Liverpudlian Arthur Wynne created the first true crossword puzzle for the Dec. 21, 1913, edition of the New York World, and you can print a copy from www.crosswordtournament.com, the Web site of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, whose director is Will Shortz.
Their national tournament begins March 24 in Stamford, Conn., and you can play by mail or online. Because he's an official, Shortz can't compete, but he's perennially captain of the U.S. Puzzle Team, which competes in the World Puzzle Championship, and co-founded that contest's sponsor, the World Puzzle Federation.
According to its Web site, puzzles used in the World Puzzle Championship "are cultural- and language-neutral. For instance, puzzles based on logic, visual puzzles, puzzles with numbers."
One type of logic puzzle used in WPF competitions is Sudoku, which is sweeping America. "Sudoku" is Japanese for "only single numbers allowed" and is played by filling in a grid with single digits without repeating them. It requires no math, only logic, and has become a "publishing phenomena" in recent months, with Sudoku books constantly making the best seller lists. In fact, Will Shortz has one there now.
Long popular in Japan, Sudoku was introduced to the U.S. in 1979 but didn't catch on until April 2005, when it was published in the New York Post. Its revival was launched in 1997 by Wayne Gould, a retired New Zealand judge and puzzle enthusiast who picked up a Sudoku book while vacationing in Japan. He enjoyed it so much he wrote software to generate his own Sudoku puzzles and started publishing and promoting them.
Crosswords, however, are human-generated, so when you're stumped, it's helpful having human reference librarians with helpful attitudes and handy crossword dictionaries a phone call away. This is important to those of us doomed to spend our crosswording days rarely completing an entire puzzle on our own, and then only with the help of a few dubious terms.
My wife is one of the fast, clever crossworders, but I'm not. However, I derive immense satisfaction from adding at least one word to each of her puzzles-in-progress, and I agree with Abraham Lincoln, who said, "Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm."
Greg Hill is director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries.