American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

 Crossword Tournament

In the News

Source: The Santa Clara
Date: November 15, 2007
Byline: Molly Gore

Math professor and crossword constructor gives puzzle advice

There are two Byron Waldens. To some, he is the young Santa Clara mathematics professor with a taste for complex numerical analysis, but to others, he is a diabolical but brilliant crossword puzzle constructor who is clearly very good at what he does.

If you have ever seen the film "Wordplay," you may have caught a glimpse of Walden, the young, sandy blonde in about 15 seconds of footage speaking to contestants and lounging in the background.

Hailed by the New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz as "one of the best," Walden constructed the puzzle used in the championship round of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament that was the film's subject.

On Saturday, Walden offered tips to puzzle solvers by examining the conventions of crossword puzzle editors and constructors and gave tricks to solving supremely clever clues in his class, "Wordplay," as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute series of short courses.

Crossword expert Walden took first place in the B Division at the 2007 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in March. He has constructed puzzles for several news outlets and published a small book of crossword puzzles. He did his undergraduate studies in mathematics at Vanderbilt University, earned his doctorate at Yale and now teaches as a math professor.

Walden, dressed in a casual taupe sport coat and black crewneck shirt, spoke fervently about the conventions and tricks that constructors and editors use to both guide and mislead solvers.

Using the example of the word "car," Walden explained the graduation in difficulty of clues as a week progresses in most news publications. At the beginning of the week, the word might be clued simply as "an automobile," or "something found in a lot." By the end of the week, it gets trickier.

"They start trying to clue it to make you think it's something else. If it's 'Mercury or Saturn' for example, you might think it's a planet or a Roman god. But no, no, it's a car," said Walden with a contemplative grin.

To moderate the difficulty of a puzzle to fit the standard for the day, editors will change clues around to either be more straightforward or more indirect.

"On Monday and Tuesday, the editors will try to protect you from those kinds of tricks. By the end of the week, though, anything is fair game."

Though discarded by many youth as a hobby for the older generations, popular topics among the young are just as frequent as the occasional silent film star or old jazz musician that habitually reappear in puzzles.

"Even if you never listen to hip-hop, you're probably going to need to know who Dr. Dre is regardless. He is just too useful. Remember his collaborator is Eminem. It's like the candy, to remember the letter sequence. Those guys are in crosswords a lot; they are fairly major rap artists, and the letters are just beautiful. There is a short little word ending and alternating vowels and consonants," said Walden.

It is nearly impossible to know the answers to most clues based on background knowledge, but studying up a bit on unfamiliar areas can never hurt.

"If you're ever scanning the celebrity pages and you notice somebody who has a name with alternating consonants and vowels, you might want to remember that name or cut it out. You might see that in a puzzle. It's just too good," said Walden.

In the world of crossword puzzles, some of the same tricky clues appear, and plenty of useful words reappear and become part of the solver's staple vocabulary. Walden cited such examples as "Eve," clued as "first lady," or "first of all," cluing the word "Adam."

He suggests putting an "s" in the last box of plural words, even if you don't know them, paying attention to punctuation in the clues, and learning words such as "etui" (a needle case), "agora" (an ancient marketplace) and "opal," among others. Nods, chuckles and repeated mutterings of "seen that before" from the audience punctuated his advice.

Walden began learning these patterns and tricks at a young age. At age 10, he was introduced to word puzzles by his father and grandmother.

Ever since, Walden has held a fascination with crossword puzzles that has ventured beyond just solving.

Since he began constructing puzzles, Walden estimates that he has had around 50 puzzles published by the New York Times and more in the New York Sun, a newspaper that rivals the Times in the crossword puzzle world.

He is in the majority, as the greater part of serious crossword puzzle solvers are mathematicians and musicians.

Perhaps it is the aptitude for pattern recognition, memorization and structured understanding that make mathematicians and musicians so good at puzzles. Many of the rules and standards that dictate the structure of crossword puzzles rely on pattern and symmetry. Crossword puzzle grids must be symmetrical across one axis, and the black squares cannot section off any block of white squares, as the white must all be contiguous. Though not a rule, grids are usually made up of an odd and equal number of squares on each side.

"That's because it puts one square in the middle. If you had two even sides, that puts four squares in the middle. And then if I have something in the middle, the symmetry is hitting it in two ways, the across and the down, and I have to worry about the symmetry in the middle a lot. With odd numbers, there's that only one square that you have to worry about," Walden explained.

Walden estimates that only two or three dozen people in the United States construct crosswords for a living, as the pay is poor for the time spent, and there is never a steady guarantee that a puzzle will be published.

"I do it for a hobby, so I don't use computers. It just wouldn't be fun for me to press a button and get the answer. People can't do it by hand and make enough money to live, though," said Walden.

According to Walden, the highest paying outlet for crossword puzzles is the New York Times, at a top commission of $200 per puzzle. At more than five or six hours of construction time on a good day for Walden, crossword puzzle creating is not the most lucrative endeavor.

For those using databases to create puzzles, as most full-time puzzle constructors do, the time decreases and it's easier to make a profit. For those who construct for enjoyment, the pleasure is often had in the challenge of hand constructing. Constructing the puzzles is by and large freelance, so there is no salary or guaranteed commission. When asked if he resubmits to other outlets when his puzzles are rejected, Walden responded with a "no."

"I just try to make a better puzzle. It's because it's not my living; I do it for fun," said Walden.

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