Date: April 2007
Byline: Dave Korzon
Puzzle Master Will Shortz
The New York Times crossword puzzle editor turns wordplay into life's work (and fun)
It looks quite simple really — a small, hollowed out vessel with two small steel balls in its recess. There are two holes, one at each end of the vessel. The object? Get one ball into each hole. The problem? Tilt Roly-Poly one way to get one ball in, and the other ball goes with it. Tilt it the other way to fill the opposite hole, and the ball you've just potted rolls out of its hole. Will Shortz, crossword editor for The New York Times and puzzle master for National Public Radio, has just started to give me a tour of his Tudor-style home in Pleasantville, New York. This is our first stop and my introduction to Shortz's passion for all kinds of puzzling.
Shortz, a casually neat and fit looking man of fifty-four, sees my ham-fisted gyrations as I try to get the two balls to roll opposite ways at the same time, and offers a little friendly advice. "It's not a puzzle having to do with dexterity," he deadpans.
Fair enough. But more about this puzzle and my struggles later.
I've come here today to talk to Shortz about the world he has created for himself. Since 1993 he has been crossword editor for The New York Times, having taken the puzzle from the stuffy world of prim and proper word usage and the dusty dictionary to the agile world of modern-day word usage, cultural relevance, and playfulness. If you're a Times solver, you know he starts off the week with a fairly easy Monday puzzle and increases the level of difficulty as the week progresses. And while Sunday's puzzle might be the largest, Saturday's is the most difficult. Solvers from all over the planet do his puzzle every day, whether in The Times itself, online, or in a syndicated version. Quite an achievement for this soft-spoken Indiana native who describes himself nowadays as half Hoosier and half New Yorker.
"I'd like to think I have a little of the sophistication of a New Yorker, but I'm never going to lose my down-home, unpretentious Midwestern qualities," he says to me as we make our way to the second floor of his home. Upstairs, Shortz shows me his rare book collection, held in a room dominated by bookshelves and awash in comfortable light. We stand among the world's largest collection of rare puzzle books (around 20,000 volumes). But for Shortz, of course, books also mean work, as signified by the great number of reference books that wait for him, neatly aligned, in his modest office just across the hall from his book room. Words equal work for Shortz, and vice versa. Shortz was born in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he was raised on an Arabian horse farm, and developed a largely inexplicable fascination with words and puzzles at a young age. When asked about his childhood, he admits to being a brainy kid, the teacher's favorite, and not really hitting his stride socially until high school, where he starred on the tennis team, was part of his school's number-one debate couple, and was elected to the senior class council.
Later on, attending Indiana University, he discovered what was then called the Independent Learning Program, in which you could create your own major. His love of puzzles won out over his study of economics and soon there was a new major: enigmatology. The study of puzzles.
From this inauspicious beginning and after editing Games magazine for fifteen years, Shortz has made for himself a career which not only has him editing for the Times but also serving as puzzle master for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday where he enjoys wordplay games with NPR's call-in audience. He also tours the country on speaking engagements and has authored and edited countless books on puzzles and wordplay. Take a look next time you're at your local bookstore at all the books on the enormously popular logic puzzle Sudoku.
Odds are you will see Shortz's name on the spines. So whether it's crosswords, the highly addictive Sudoku, or any kind of puzzle involving wordplay, Shortz is as much of an expert as you can get in the field. He's a self-admitted private person, though that changed a bit in 2005 when the documentary Wordplay, directed by Patrick Creadon, took the Sundance Film Festival by storm and created a bidding war between studios that wanted to release the film theatrically. Wordplay profiles Shortz and takes you inside the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (founded by Shortz in 1978 and still run by him). The film is a delight, focusing on the intensely passionate crossword-solver subculture. Included are interviews with a number of celebrity solvers such as The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, New York Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina, and crossword fanatic Bill Clinton. You also get to meet perennial tournament powerhouses such as Ellen Ripstein, Al Sanders, and the current reigning champion for two years running, twenty-two year-old bond trader Tyler Hinman.
Will Shortz and I have a good talk this afternoon. I find him to be intelligent in a way that redefines the word. He exudes quickness of mind, and a cerebral nimbleness that I have never encountered before. Yet he is incredibly nice and a good sport about answering some of my more mundane questions such as "So what's your all-time favorite crossword you've done for The Times?" (For the record, it's the famous Clinton-Dole crossword The Times ran on the eve of the 1996 presidential election which allowed solvers two different — and yet both correct — ways to solve the puzzle.)
At the end of the day, as he hands me my coat, I finally give in and ask about the Roly-Poly puzzle. Shortz retrieves it and sets it on the low table in the front room. Then he simply spins it. When it stops, both balls are in their respective holes.
"Centrifugal force," he says plainly.
Sure, easy for you, Will.
DAVE KORZON: Will, did you envision this kind of success for yourself when you decided to make a career in puzzles?
WILL SHORTZ: When I was starting out? No. First of all, I never dreamed of having the job at The New York Times. Because my interest as a child was in novelty puzzles. At that time crosswords were something to do, but nothing special. And secondly, growing up in a small town in Indiana, I didn't feel I had the intellectual props to be the crossword editor of The New York Times. It was too sophisticated and cultured a job. But after I got it, I got comfortable in it. And now from what I read, from the reactions I get from solvers, I think I know more than most people do [laughs].
KORZON: Is a crossword puzzle an art form?
SHORTZ: I think it's a minor art form. And only in the modern days. If you go back forty or fifty years, crosswords were just collections of words. They were a nice craft, but the constructor's personality wasn't really coming through in the puzzle. I think that's part of what makes something an art. It's the human nature of it. The person's personality is expressed through this form. In modern crosswords you have themes in most of the puzzles and an interesting choice of vocabulary. And of course with the clues, there's trickery and deception where you're not just dependent on the dictionary definition, but also on the everyday use of the word. So your humor and your whole personality can come out in a puzzle. So yeah, I think crosswords today are a minor art form.
KORZON: Did you have designs on changing the expressiveness of The New York Times crossword puzzle when you took the crossword editor's position?
SHORTZ: When I started at the job in 1993, I succeeded Eugene T. Maleska, who was thirty-six years older than me. So I had a somewhat different style of editing. I wanted to have a less old-fashioned obscurity in the puzzles. I wanted to focus on vocabulary that people use in everyday life. Words that people know. So there's less old-fashioned obscurity. And at the same time there's more trickery and deception in the clues and more humor and twists. And the funny thing was at the start, the first year or so, I was getting letters from people on the same puzzle, saying that the puzzles were harder than they used to be, and the puzzles were easier than they used to be. And I thought, well, that's paradoxical. How can people be saying both things at the same time? It's impossible. It's one way or the other. And then I realized, no, it's not impossible. It's because my style of editing is affecting people in different ways. People who knew those old-fashioned, difficult words, if they'd been doing puzzles for a long time, then the trickery and deception and maybe vagueness, and all the tricks used to make puzzles hard, maybe that was affecting them, and seemed to make the puzzles harder than they were before. Meanwhile, very sharp people, people who had nimble minds and wanted to know modern culture, because there's more modern culture in the puzzles now, they were finding my puzzles easier.
KORZON: How much correspondence do you get?
SHORTZ: It's ferocious. Just the submissions, I get sixty to seventy-five puzzles submitted to me a week. And mail? In the early days it was unbelievable. When I started, everyone had an opinion about me. And they let me know. So I was getting hundreds of letters a week and it was just overwhelming. My boss — I don't really have a boss, but the person who hired me — suggested that it would be wise and good form to respond to the mail. So I spent a lot of time answering people's mail, criticisms or, you know, kudos. I got kudos too. Nowadays the mail is a lot less. First of all, if you hate me, you're probably not still doing The Times puzzle after fourteen years; you've moved on to something else [laughs]. Also there are other means of expressing your view. The Times has an online crossword forum where people go and post their comments about the puzzles. And there are a couple of crossword blogs out there, and readers can post comments there. So they don't have to write me personally anymore.
KORZON: Can you think of any correspondence from over the years that has stuck with you?
SHORTZ: One that stands out is a lady who went to the hospital for brain surgery. The first thing she did when she came out of surgery was to solve The New York Times crossword. And when she succeeded she knew she had come through successfully.
KORZON: Did she come out on a Monday? [Laughs]
SHORTZ: I don't know, I don't remember that part of the story [laughs]. The point being, she used The Times crossword as a test of her mental ability and she was relieved when she found she could still do it. There's all sorts of crazy stories like that.
KORZON: You've held this job at The Times now going on fifteen years. Do people still get confused about what your job entails? Crossword editor?
SHORTZ: Most people have no idea. Even people at The Times have no idea what I do [laughs].
KORZON: Do people get confused and think that you construct all the puzzles?
SHORTZ: Yes, people see my name on the puzzle in big letters and assume I make the puzzles even if they do see the constructor's byline. People generally have very little conception of what the process is.
KORZON: Well, take us through.
SHORTZ: The biggest part of the job is correspondence. As I said, I get sixty to seventy-five puzzles submitted to me a week. The most important part of the job is looking at those submissions and responding to people. If I think the puzzle is of a certain level, I will respond to the person and tell them what I like and what I don't like, and what I think will improve their submissions in the future. If there's a puzzle I like that's got problems, I will work with the constructor on it. If there's a problem with the theme, then I'll suggest that they revise it. If the theme is good, but there are problems in the grid, say obscure words, made-up things, a phrase that maybe sounds a little too contrived, or even occasionally an area that's too dull — you know, there's nothing bad in there, but it's just bland — then I'll ask the constructor to rework it. If it's a small fix, then I'll do it myself. Once I accept the puzzle, I put it in my file of puzzles to be published in the future. I edit puzzles a week at a time, so I pick seven puzzles that I think have some flow through the week. Every puzzle, I think, has a natural level of difficulty, irrespective of how the constructor has clued it. So I'll look at the theme and the vocabulary and decide if it's a Monday puzzle or a Thursday or whatever. And I file the puzzles accordingly. When I come to edit a week's worth of puzzles, I select them to try to get a variety of types of themes, different from themes that I've used recently. I try to vary the constructors; with rare exceptions no constructor is repeated within two weeks at The Times. Once I've selected the puzzles, I edit the clues. On average about half the clues on a Times puzzle are mine. But the amount of changing can be anywhere from as little as 5 percent, if it's a puzzlemaker who writes really good clues, up to 95 percent, if it's somebody who needs a lot of work.
KORZON: What are you on the lookout for cluewise?
SHORTZ: Rule number one is accuracy. It doesn't matter how clever or wonderful the clues are, they gotta be right. So I look everything up that I'm not absolutely certain of. As you saw in my library and in my office, I'm surrounded by books, and I have all sorts of online references as well. Then I'm writing clues to be the right level of difficulty. To be fresh, funny, interesting, colorful, lively. Trying to make the clues as interesting as possible. That completes the editing process. Once I edit the puzzles, I typeset them myself, using proprietary software from The Times, right on my handy Mac upstairs, and when the puzzles are typeset I send them to four people for testing. Four test solvers. One of these rechecks every word and fact after me. All four of them give me their comments on what's hard or what's easy. What they like, don't like. Anything they don't think is good. They call in with their comments and corrections and then I polish the puzzles and send them to The Times, where they are tested by a fifth person as they are prepared for the different versions the puzzles are put out in. You know, when they're sent out through the syndicate, or they're put out online. There are various different formats. So this person makes all those forms and also tests them again. And when she's done the puzzles are basically final, but she sends them to a sixth person [laughs] who is a final, final backup.
SHORTZ: On The Times's crossword forum, there's this guy who seems to know everything in the world — he just has an encyclopedic knowledge. And I noticed on the crossword forum when a puzzle was published he'd come up with these nitpicky points or even sometimes outright errors that slipped through everyone else. So I'm thinking, why don't I get his advice before the puzzle is published rather than after. He's not paid. Our deal is he gets free access to the puzzles and he sees them before they get in print. He doesn't have to respond. But if he sees something that he thinks I should know about before the puzzle is published, he lets me know. So really, altogether, six people besides me see the puzzles before they appear in print. And it's one reason why they're so accurate. It's very rare that something gets through all that.
KORZON: But your job goes beyond words and fact-checking. You are a student of human tendencies as you put these puzzles out.
SHORTZ: That's part of it and I'm also deciding, in my opinion, what people should know. What they do know, and also what they should know. Which are two different things. On Tuesday I had a clue in The Times crossword, "Howard Stern sidekick Lange." And so on Tuesday's Howard Stern show they were talking about this. That Artie Lange had "made it" because he had been recognized by The Times crossword. So Howard 100 News called me to interview me about this and I explained that, you know, the Howard Stern show is part of our culture and so I think Artie Lange is an interesting and worthwhile name to know.
KORZON: That's heady stuff. Judging how smart and in tune everybody is. What's culturally relevant or well enough known. What's made it or what hasn't.
SHORTZ: Here's an example. When Britney Spears came out with her hit "Oops!...I Did It Again," a crossword constructor sent me that fifteen-letter answer in the middle of a puzzle. And I said I was not ready to use this because it was a hit just then. I was afraid it could be too ephemeral. I would like The Times crosswords to have a shelf life of at least five to ten years. And just because something is a number-one hit today doesn't mean it's going to be remembered six months from now. So I said come back to me in six months and we'll talk again. So he did and "Oops!...I Did It Again," to my mind, had sort of seeped into popular culture. You'd see it in headlines; you didn't have to be a Britney Spears fan to be aware of that title. So at that point I accepted the puzzle.
KORZON: It's been said that you consider yourself a people pleaser. How does this trait affect the way you do your job?
SHORTZ: The pleasure people get from solving puzzles is feeling smart. I like people to understand that they are smart. But you don't do that by making everything easy. Then there's no challenge. The challenge for me is to make the puzzle at the upper end of the solver's ability to do it. Because when the solver struggles on a puzzle and breaks through and finishes, that's where the tremendous satisfaction and pleasure comes in. So that's the "sweet spot" for me, that's the solver's sweet spot that I'm aiming for. The problem is it's a different sweet spot for everybody. Some people's sweet spot is a Monday. They finish a Monday puzzle and couldn't possibly go beyond Tuesday and Wednesday. I hear a lot of people say there's like a wall between Wednesday and Thursday. They can do Wednesday's; they just can't make it to Thursday. And then there are people who can do Thursday's but can't do Friday's and Saturday's. And so on. Everyone has a different sweet spot. That's one reason the puzzles have different levels of difficulty through the week. I like to provide a sweet spot for everybody at some point.
KORZON: Were there any early signs in your life pointing you toward this life in puzzling?
SHORTZ: The earliest I remember is in the first grade. A reading assignment was to read this two-page story and find all the compound words. Like "treetop." And the story had been purposely seeded with compound words. So all of the kids made their lists, and my list had three times the number of words that anyone else's did. And the teacher looked at my list and I had chosen words like "home." Which I split into "ho" and "me." So there's some wordplay [laughs]. And another time, I believe it was in the fourth grade, we were studying silent letters. And it was pointed out that "ph" sounds like an "f " in some words, like "photograph." And some words start with silent letters, like "gnat" starts with a silent "g." And "czar" starts with a silent "c," and so on. And the teacher said that no word starts with two silent letters. And I said, "I know a word that starts with two silent letters." And the teacher said there was no such thing. So I brought in my dictionary the next day from home. And the word was "phthisis." It's a medical term. And it was in the addendum to my dictionary. It was a new word at the time. And my teacher said that didn't count. If it wasn't in the main part of the dictionary, it wasn't really a word.
KORZON: You must have been her favorite.
SHORTZ: [Laughs] But here I am in the fourth grade reading the dictionary and I remember the word "phthisis." That said a lot about me.
KORZON: Is there any kind of family history that you can point to for this love of wordplay?
SHORTZ: Not a strong one. My mother was a writer. So I know I got my love of words from her. She said her mother was a big crossword fan in the 1920s during the crossword craze. But so many millions of people were. I don't know that that really means much. I know my mom helped me with my early career because she was always submitting articles to magazines for publication and when she saw how fascinated I was with crosswords, she encouraged me to send puzzles for publication. And I sold my first one when I was fourteen and became a regular contributor to Dell Puzzle Magazine when I was sixteen. So she did encourage me and that was a help. Other than that, I think it was just something I picked up. It was this funny quirk I had. Merl Reagle, the crossword constructor who's in Wordplay, was reading the dictionary under his dining room table when he was a kid. That's just something he picked up himself. He started interlocking words all on his own; no one told him to do that. When I was seven or eight, I believe — I don't really know the exact age — my mom had a bridge club over in the afternoon and to keep me quiet she took a piece of paper, ruled it into squares, and showed me how words interlocked across and down. And so I was happy all afternoon, making my little puzzle. When the bridge club left my mom numbered the squares for me and showed me how to write clues. She didn't really like puzzles herself, it was just something to keep me busy. That was my introduction. And even at that stage I was trying to make words interlock in as chunky sections as possible. You know, to have as many letters as possible. Have wide-open white spaces. No one told me to do that. It was just something I instinctively thought would make a more elegant puzzle.
KORZON: Well, let's jump right to college and your time at Indiana University. This is where the idea struck you to actually major in puzzles. Which I find astonishing. I didn't even know you could do that.
SHORTZ: I entered college not knowing what I was going to do. At first I declared my major in economics. I also explored library science, because I loved to collect books. I just love books, and I like to put things in order, so I thought I could be a librarian. But then I learned you have to speak two foreign languages fluently to major in library science at Indiana. So I just put that aside. Anyway, I majored in economics and I think it was my sophomore year at college my mom discovered this program called at the time the Independent Learning Program. Since then it's been changed to the Individualized Major Program. It was fairly new. It started at Indiana in '69, and I started IU in 1970. If you're accepted into the program, you can major in anything you want. I'd been joking for years about majoring in puzzles in college, never imagining that it could actually be done. So I scheduled an appointment and went to the head of the program to discuss the idea. And my memory is that she made it sound very hard. And sort of was discouraging. When I went into that meeting, I wasn't sure I wanted to do this. But coming out of the meeting, I knew that's what I wanted to do. I was going to overcome whatever challenge there was and I was going to do this.
KORZON: What exactly does a puzzle major study?
SHORTZ: American word puzzles. And you know, I just studied every kind of word puzzle there was at the school library. I changed my major fully to the Individualized Major Program my senior year and spent almost the entire year in the study of puzzles because I had to jam my whole new major into one year. My thesis was on the history of American word puzzles before 1860. I was the only person ever to study this. And to do this at Indiana's library, I literally looked at every publication published before 1860 which they had on file that I thought might have a puzzle column or that might have puzzles. So I think I found most of the puzzle material, if it was findable, up to 1860. One of my discoveries was monthly puzzles in Samuel Danforth's Almanack, that's 1647. I think it was something like the nineteenth publication in the colonies, one of the earliest publications in the American colonies. And for each month of the year they printed an original versified enigma. Not something copied from England, but something that an American wrote. And so this was my discovery: that puzzles go back to practically the beginning of publishing history in America.
KORZON: Groundbreaking work on an untouched subject.
SHORTZ: I compiled all this information, all these puzzles from early American publications. In my thesis I concluded that rises and falls in interest in puzzles in America coincided with rises and falls in educational and cultural developments. At the time it was a revelation, but looking back it seems so obvious. Right after the American Revolution, which ended in 1783, there was an explosion of publishing in America. Magazines and newspapers. And that was when there was an explosion of interest in puzzles. I found that during periods of social ferment there was the least interest in puzzles. So in the twentieth century I'd say the worst decades for interest in puzzles were the teens and the 1960s. And of course the 1920s were the crossword craze. That was a wonderful time. The 1930s were wonderful too.
KORZON: After your time at Indiana University, you went on to the University of Virginia and got your degree in law. How did you end up in puzzles?
SHORTZ: My parents saw puzzles as a novelty. They supported me in what I did but they didn't think this was going to lead to a career. I was planning to go to law school and I did go on. And I think majoring in enigmatology actually helped me get into the University of Virginia. It helped to have a passion for something interesting and intellectual. The fact that I rejected law but made a career in puzzles, that surprised everyone.
The thing that changed my life was the summer between graduating from Indiana and going to law school. I worked for Penny Press, a puzzle magazine company in Stamford, Connecticut. That spring before I graduated at Indiana, I wrote to all the puzzle magazine companies in the country — there were eight or ten of them at the time — asking for a summer job, and one offered me an internship, Penny Press. I was so lucky — the owners had just bought the company within the previous year and they didn't know what the hell they were doing. And here's this young puzzle wiz from Indiana asking if he could come and work for the summer. It was a couple who owned it. The wife did not want me there. She just thought I would get in her hair. The husband insisted that she allow me to come. She was really running things editorially, but they coowned the company and he insisted that she hire me, try me out, anyway. So the understanding was, as I learned later, that they would bring me in for two weeks, and if that worked out I could stay. But if I didn't work out, it was all right for her to fire me. So I drove all the way from Indiana to Stamford and stayed at the YMCA for my first nights there, and it worked out great, actually. We hit it off great. I knew puzzles, loved it, and I won her over. I came back for the succeeding summers. So that started in '74, and it went through '75, '76, and '77, when I graduated from law school. So I thought, I can have a career in puzzles, I can be an editor. That was the changing point. So in the spring of my first year of law school, I wrote my parents — I wrote them every week, a long handwritten letter — and I announced that I was quitting law school at the end of the semester. I thought I had softened the blow of this news by sort of mentioning it as an afterthought near the end of the letter. So it's "Dear Mom and Dad," and I'm talking about what's going on in law school and playing softball and all this other stuff I was doing and, "Oh, by the way, I'm dropping out at the end of the year." [Laughs] And my mom wrote me back — a real nice letter — saying they would love me no matter what I did but that it was a terrible idea and they urged me to complete my degree. It was good advice. I stayed and got my degree. And it's helped me in a number of ways. If my only degree was in enigmatology, I don't think anyone would take me seriously.
KORZON: You don't mean that.
SHORTZ: Yeah, I mean, "Your degree's in puzzles!? C'mon, you've got nothing else?" It doesn't look academically rigorous. But studying law has helped me because it's training for the mind. Law school is great at teaching you to take a complex set of issues and separate them into their independent parts and deal with each one on its own. And that's how you solve a puzzle, a complicated puzzle or any challenge you face in life, to find the separate strands and tie each one up. So no regrets — that was good advice.
KORZON: What kind of solver of life puzzles are you?
SHORTZ: I think I'm pretty good. Here's one example. This was years ago. I was racing to JFK airport, parking my car in the long-term lot, and I was running a little late. I go into the lane where you get your ticket to show what time you entered the lot, and where the bar comes up and allows you to enter. So I pull into the lane, the machine jams, I can see my ticket in the machine, it's buzzing, but it will not come out and allow me to take it. The bar will not come up. Meanwhile, cars are stacking up behind me, so I can't back up and go somewhere else. I'm in danger now of missing my plane. What do I do? Well, this does require a little bit of knowledge. In the old days you had to know that those tickets were like computer tickets, there were holes in them. So I got out of my car and searched around on the pavement and found a paper clip. I unwound the paper clip, jammed it in the slot of the machine, hooked the end of the paper clip in the hole of the ticket, extracted my ticket, the bar goes up, I park my car, race to the terminal and I literally got there as they were closing the gate for my plane. So I made my plane because of my puzzle-solving ability [laughs]. That's a stupid example, but clever thinking pays off in all sorts of ways in everyday life. That's a trivial example. In more serious things — job, love, and everything else in life — it's a little different, but even so, the ability to take a complex problem and analyze the elements of it and deal with each one the best we can — it's just a good ability to have.
KORZON: Are puzzles healthy for us?
SHORTZ: Well, studies show that creative mental exercises in general and crosswords in particular are good for the mind. Crosswords will delay and lessen the effects of Alzheimer's disease. And if it's doing that for older people, I think it will do that for everybody. You and I are not in danger of Alzheimer's right now, but the fact that we do crosswords helps us mentally. It helps us develop a more flexible mind and we're just better thinkers in addition to all the education and vocabulary that we get from crosswords. Other than that — I'll throw a hypothesis out there — it's my feeling that people who do crosswords tend to be nicer than other people. And I'm not sure if that's because crosswords tend to attract nice people or if crosswords bring out the niceness in the people who do them. As you see from the tournament, this is really a nice bunch of people. That's how they really are. I'm not the first or only person to notice this. There was a book a couple of years ago called Crossworld by Marc Romano and this was the first book ever to have this thesis, that crossword people are nice. And the more I thought about this, I thought, he's absolutely right. This comes out in Wordplay as well.
KORZON: Ultimately, what does solving a crossword puzzle tell you about yourself? Are we learning about our maturity, resolve, pure IQ?
SHORTZ: If you can solve a crossword that means you are good at solving crosswords [laughs]. What else does it mean? It means you're probably a good speller. You know words. Nowadays it means you have a wide array of knowledge. But it really means you have a flexible mind. You can look at a clue like "stick in the fridge" and realize it could mean a verb — to put something in the refrigerator. Or it could be oleo or margarine. Which is literally a "stick" in the "fridge." A good crossword solver can look at clues and see all the ways they can be interpreted, and figure out which one is correct. So it's the flexibility of mind that crosswords test more than anything else.
KORZON: But much like athletes, aren't good puzzle solvers good at it because they want to solve the puzzle more than the next guy?
SHORTZ: I think there's a natural bent to puzzle-solving, and if you don't have it puzzles are not going to appeal to you. Some people just don't feel personally challenged, you know? They look at someone solving a puzzle and think, why do they waste their time doing that? I mean, when you're done, you don't physically have anything, you just have a filled in puzzle — you haven't accomplished anything, actually. But those who do it, do it because they feel compelled to. They love the challenge of it, they love the sense of perfection they get from completing a challenge. You know, a lot of the challenges that we face in everyday life — most of them, anyway — we only see part of the challenge, we don't see it through from start to finish. I guess if you're, say, a gardener and a chef then you see everything through — you grow the food, you pick it, you prepare it, and you serve it at dinner. There you're seeing the whole process. But most things in life we don't — we only see a little bit of it. But in the puzzle you're seeing the whole process. You fill it in and you go from square one to the last square. So it's very satisfying.
KORZON: And what about the pure talent side that these crossword tournament winners have?
SHORTZ: There are two different forces working that are opposite of each other. The younger you are — like in your teens — you're at your maximum speed. And that's what Tyler Hinman has. Quickness of mind. And the older you get, your speed is going to go down. Simultaneously, the older you get, assuming you're an educated person and read and experience life, you're going to know more and more things. So your educational and knowledge level will go up. And at some point you're going to reach your ideal place where speed and knowledge intersect at the highest point. With Tyler, unbelievably, this sweet spot has occurred at a very young age. He's going to be a champion for years and years now because he's just going to keep learning more and more.
KORZON: Can you train for a crossword tournament?
SHORTZ: Yeah, it's the obvious thing. Just solve more and more puzzles. I think it helps to experience life. That means read, read, read. Go to the movies, watch TV. Read magazines, talk with people. And learn how people use words. Just being out there and knowing a little of everything helps. How do you train for a driver's test? Well, you can study the manual, learn the facts, but it's really what's in you that's going to mean whether you pass or fail.
KORZON: This March marks the thirtieth anniversary of the American Crossword Tournament. You are largely responsible for taking crossword puzzles into the competitive arena. I still think of crossword puzzles as part of the breakfast table scene on a Sunday. A solitary amusement.
SHORTZ: And that's what they should be. Doing it competitively is, you could say, a bit crazy. It's a solitary activity — why should you go and do it in a ballroom with 500 other people? It's kind of crazy. But the reason the event works is because it is crazy. If you want to find out how good a solver you are, the only way you can do that is to go to a tournament. But it is kind of nice to meet other puzzle people. You don't do that solving at the breakfast table or on the bus. To go to this event is your one chance of the year to share your passion for this with other people.
KORZON: How fast are you at solving crosswords?
SHORTZ: I'm a pretty good solver, but I'm not in the league of Tyler Hinman or Ellen Ripstein or Al Sanders. If I competed at Stamford, I'd be in the top half. So in terms of the tournament, I'm an average person, I think. In terms of the average person on the street, I'm a genius [laughs].
KORZON: I've heard comments from people who have watched Wordplay and have attached the labels "nerd" and "geek" to the puzzle solvers. Any reaction to this?
SHORTZ: I have all sorts of reactions to that. I think it's a way for people to put down others that they feel inferior to. There is an element of nerdiness and geekiness at the tournament. Any time you get a large number of people together who are intensely intellectual and focused on a particular subject, you will get some nerds and geeks. But I think if you talk with the group, in general you'll find them an interesting, lively group of people who are interested in all kinds of things. So the nerdy aspect is way overemphasized. Do you think Bill Clinton is a geek? Is [New York Yankee pitcher] Mike Mussina a geek? I don't think so. But if they're geeks, then I'm happy to be a geek.
KORZON: Wordplay is full of celebrity crossword solvers like Clinton and Mussina. Is there a best celebrity solver out there?
SHORTZ: Well, it has to be Bill Clinton. An excellent solver. Back in 1992 when I was the editor of Games magazine, Bill Clinton was running for president, and the publisher of Games was a friend of Bill's and eventually went to work for his campaign. So I thought it would be a cool feature in the magazine to interview Clinton about his interest in crosswords and include a puzzle in the magazine that he had solved, showing readers his time. So our publisher set up the meeting for me and another editor at Games, Mike Shenk, who created a crossword for the occasion. Mike and I went to the hotel where Clinton was staying in New York. So we sat down and I asked him, "How many crosswords do you do a day?" And I remember him looking a little startled, like he had never in his life been asked this before. Because you've been in politics your whole life, you've been asked just about everything, but no one has ever asked you how many crosswords you do! [Laughs] But once he saw that I was earnest, he told me. He said sometimes he could solve as many as three or maybe five in a day. So I interviewed him for a few minutes, and then he turned his attention to the crossword we had for him to do. So he clicks on his watch timer and starts solving. And he said, "You can continue to ask me questions." Well, I wanted to find out how fast he could do this crossword, so I did not want to interrupt him while he was solving. Mike and I just sat there silently as he was working the puzzle. A few minutes later the phone rings and an aide comes in and tells him this is an important call and he has to take it. So he clicks off his watch timer, goes over to his desk, he's on the phone, and Mike and I are patiently waiting on the sofa for the call to end. As we're waiting there and as Clinton is talking, we hear his watch timer click on again, and we look over and he's still talking on the phone, but now he's back to solving the crossword. When he's finished he clicks off his watch and when the call's done he comes back over. He shows us the puzzle — it's perfect, and he's finished it in six minutes and fifty-four seconds.
KORZON: How does the rest of the world view crosswords? Is this particularly an American pastime?
SHORTZ: It's worldwide. In Italy it's huge. There's a weekly magazine called La Settimana Enigmistica, and for long parts of its history it had over a million circulation. There's no American puzzle magazine that's ever had a million circulation. Virtually every country's crosswords have different personalities based partly on their people and partly on the language. The Italian language is great for crosswords in particular because the alphabet has fewer letters and there's a higher concentration of vowels and the fluid consonants like l and r that allows the Italians to have interlocks that are more wide open, producing larger chunks of white squares than any other language. They can achieve feats of interlock we can't do in any other language. But one problem in Italian is that almost all the words end in vowels. So that means in the lower row, on the right column of the grid, things tend to look really crappy by our standards. Every language has unique things like that. In Poland, for some reason, in their crosswords they allow only nouns in the basic singular form. You can't use any other form — you can't do plural and you can't use adjectives, verbs, or any other parts of speech. I don't know why they do that, but that's the rule. British crosswords have a cryptic style. Crosswords started everywhere in the world identically. They started here in the United States but then they spread around the world. And within one year, the British started branching out. There's something about the English mind, that they can't leave things straightforward and normal. There's got to be some sort of twist to it. So almost within a year, certain British publications were introducing anagrams and wordplay in the clues and by the '30s there was a whole body of rules that were being developed for cryptic clues involving anagrams and homophones and dropping letters. That's now the standard form in Britain.
KORZON: What do you do for puzzling in your leisure time?
SHORTZ: A lot of people do crosswords to break from their regular lives. Focus on the crossword for a while and then you're refreshed and relaxed and ready to go on to everything else in life. For me I'm not so much relaxed and refreshed by crosswords because I'm looking at them professionally. I'm thinking, I don't like this clue or this could have been done better, or oh, this is a great idea, maybe I can use it somehow. It's not quite the break for me. So for me the break, the activity that does that same thing, is table tennis. I get completely wrapped up in the focus of that and at the end of the evening I feel relaxed and refreshed and I can go back to the puzzles. As far as my own puzzle-solving, I enjoy almost any kind of puzzle. I'm not good at Rubik's Cube or other three-dimensional stuff. I like things with two dimensions. But I love Sudoku — I've been a fan of that from the start. And I love, love, love Killer Sudoku, which is a variation of that. For word puzzles, I enjoy a good Friday, Saturday, New York Times-style crossword from other places and also cryptic crosswords like you find in the Atlantic or Harper's magazine or some British publications. I love those.
KORZON: How important is it for you to do what you do for The New York Times and NPR specifically? Do those organizations mean a lot to you?
SHORTZ: I work for the two greatest news organizations in the country. I'd be happy to edit a crossword for USA Today, but it would be a little different puzzle than what I do for The Times. I couldn't assume the level of sophistication of the solver as I do in The Times puzzles. I edited Games magazine for fifteen years, and that had a different audience. It was upscale, but it tended to be younger. So the puzzles that I edited there had a different sensibility. For The Times crossword there's going to be more higher culture, more literature, history, classical music, art, mythology, opera than I would do for Games, or anywhere else for that matter. It's nice to edit for a sophisticated audience. I feel I'm stretching myself to the limit. If I were editing for another publication, I'd just have to pull back some. It reminds me a little of Angela Lansbury, one of the great actresses of stage and film. She ended up spending a lot of her career on Murder, She Wrote. And she was such a great actress she could just walk through that role. If I were editing for an ordinary newspaper I would just walk through the role. I would enjoy it. I would edit for my audience, but I wouldn't feel I was stretching myself the way I have to for The Times.
KORZON: Can you describe the relationship you feel with the people out there who are doing your puzzles each day? Is it a warm familial feeling? Or an instructor's type of feeling? Tough love? [Laughs]
SHORTZ: [Laughs] No, it's not tough love. I guess "familial" is pretty good. I'm not sure I even think in those terms. What I do is put myself in the shoes of the solver. And think, what would I love if I were the solver of this puzzle? Whoever that person is. And it's going to be a different person for each day of the week. Slightly. That's what I'm doing. So I guess it's a friendly feeling because I'm editing for myself, basically, or somebody that I like.
KORZON: Your passion for puzzling and wordplay is amazing. Your hobby is your living, so to speak. Do you ever fear burnout in your job?
SHORTZ: I don't think I'll ever feel that way for a number of reasons. First of all, crosswords are so creative and they're so educational that you're always developing yourself. The more puzzles I do, the more pleasure it is. I think if you were burned out by crosswords, it would mean you would be burned out on life itself. They're always challenging and you're always learning, so there's all that. Secondly, it's very diverse. I don't do just crosswords but also Sudoku, and I collect crosswords and write about puzzles, I do mathematical puzzles, I direct puzzle events. So yeah, I'm immersed in puzzles, but it's on so many levels and in so many ways that every day is different. Thirdly, I love what I do because of the people I come in contact with. As I say in Wordplay, puzzle people are interesting, they're educated, they tend to be well read, they tend to be funny, and they're my kind of people. One of the best parts of the job is the people I come in contact with. So I'll never get tired of this.