Date: July 10, 2005
Byline: James Kaplan
'Crossworld': Le ___ Juste
THERE are levels of the game to every game, as presumptuous hobbyists learn to their sorrow. At one time in my life, I fancied myself pretty good — O.K., maybe even a little better than pretty good — at doing crossword puzzles. Then I met Stanley Newman.
It was a number of years ago, when I was writing a sports and games column for a business magazine. Somebody suggested that Newman, a champion crossword solver then working as an institutional analyst for Merrill Lynch, might make a good subject, and my competitive juices were stirred. I had recently timed myself completing a New York Times daily puzzle in five minutes flat (this was before I had children), and I thought Stanley Newman might be intrigued to meet me.
Newman, a gimlet-eyed fellow who bore a slight resemblance to the young Oscar Levant, didn't suffer fools gladly. His personal record for solving a daily Times puzzle, he quickly let me know, was two minutes and 24 seconds. He could complete a Sunday puzzle in under seven minutes. When I looked incredulous, he offered to go head-to-head with me, then and there, on a USA Today puzzle. We bought two copies of the paper, he started his handy stopwatch, and we set to work. I was roughly halfway through when Newman capped his pen. The cap made a nasty, superior click.
Newman is a subsidiary character but a looming figure in Marc Romano's "Crossworld," an account of the author's own crossword obsession and his participation in the 2004 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn. Toward the end of the book, Romano tells a Newman story that tops mine by a mile: A crossword constructor named Peter Gordon set Newman the challenge of vying with him to solve a puzzle that Gordon had created himself, and that Newman had never seen before. You can guess the outcome. "After just over two minutes or so of furiously filling in the words he had memorized," Romano writes, "Peter glanced up to see how Stan was faring. To his utter dismay, Stan was sitting there with his arms folded across his chest and a Cheshire cat smile on his face. On the table before him was Peter's puzzle, all done and all correct. He had done it in two minutes."
Luckily for the rest of the competitive crossword-solving world, Stanley Newman has hung up his erasable pen — possibly because nobody else could give him a run for his money — and devoted himself to constructing and editing puzzles and running crossword cruises. Yes, there are crossword cruises. And yes, there is a competitive crossword-solving world, as anyone who has ever whiled away some pleasant weekend time with the Sunday puzzle may learn with some ambivalence.
Or is it presumptuous to assume that like me, you have mixed feelings about completing a puzzle? That (like me) you might even feel a certain Don Juan-like disappointment if the conquest comes too easily? As even sporadic solvers are aware, the difficulty of The Times's daily puzzles ratchets up throughout the week — though one of the piquant tidbits in "Crossworld" is that the degree of difficulty lies much less in the gridded words themselves than in the clues written by Will Shortz, the newspaper's crossword editor. I may as well confess that my ideal crossword is a particularly hard Saturday puzzle with one corner that stays adamantly, bedevilingly blank until, having given in and put the paper aside to face my actual life, I find, late that night, that my unconscious has coughed up the one word that causes those around it to fall into place. Next to this, what pleasure can there be in finishing a puzzle in two minutes flat?
Marc Romano tries mightily to make the world of superfast competitive crossword solvers as fascinating to us as it is to him. But from his opening sentence ("I am hopelessly addicted to the New York Times crossword puzzle"), it's clear that we're in the hands of a deeply biased tour guide, the infectiousness of whose fervor will hinge directly on his ability to achieve some distance from the subject. This Romano largely fails to do. "Crossworld" has two main characters: Romano himself and a brilliant young crossword constructor from Boston named Brendan Emmett Quigley. Quigley, a redheaded would-be indie rocker who earns his living working for a caterer (crossword constructors for The Times are paid the astonishing sum of $125 for a daily puzzle, and $600 for a Sunday puzzle, and make real money only if their puzzles are anthologized), is a fascinating figure, a kind of rock star or outlaw of the crossword world. He is not only not an especially fast solver — he came in 173rd out of around 500 competitors in the 2004 championship — but seems delightfully unimpressed with the overarching importance of the puzzles he devises so ingeniously.
Romano is a far less interesting character than Quigley, but unfortunately a much more prevalent one in the book. In chapter after chapter, he strains after the metaphorical significance of crossword puzzles and the psychological specialness of skilled puzzle solvers (including himself). Sometimes the effort feels halfhearted, sometimes quixotic. Crossword adepts, the author informs us, may have superior pattern-recognition skills of the kind that helped our ancestors survive in savage environments. And crossword solving, he ventures, may even be a force for ethical improvement in the world, since expert puzzlers, he's observed, tend to be really, really nice people.
There is a good deal of appealing lore in "Crossworld" — we learn of the great crossword craze of 1924-25 and of a strange incident during World War II, when Daily Telegraph puzzles seemed to tip off details of the D-Day invasion before the event — but what there mostly is is a lot of Marc Romano. He's quite a clever fellow, he doesn't mind telling us, a kind of polymath who earns his living translating books from French, Italian and Russian. We learn a good deal about his digestive habits, his love life, his medicine intake. He writes in the earnest, breezy-clunky style of a very smart grad student whose wonkiness keeps getting away from him — to the point that the narrative itself occasionally reads as if it had been translated from another language.
If you're going to write about words, and show off about them, you probably ought to be careful to get them exactly right. At one point, Romano advises the reader to "cozen up to" Will Shortz. At another, he tells us that Quigley "waxed fine" about the theory of puzzle construction. There are a number of similarly odd usages.
ONE of the few good stories Romano tells on himself concerns a long, boozy evening between rounds at Stamford, in the course of which he belabors Quigley with some putatively Nabokovian theories on the aesthetics, ethics and metaphysics of crossword puzzles: "Brendan pondered for a second before setting his last beer of the night onto the bar counter and turning to face me. 'Marc,' he said, swaying slightly but looking me straight in the eye, 'you're talking about crossword puzzles. It's really not that complicated. They're just games.' "
The moment comes two-thirds of the way through the book, and one would think it would be a kind of epiphany. Yet despite his admiration for Quigley, the author goes right on theorizing as though nothing had happened.
James Kaplan, the author of "Two Guys From Verona," is at work on another novel.