Date: June 22, 2006
Byline: Jocelyn Noveck, The New York Times
Puzzle master Will Shortz is a man of his words
NEW YORK — You'd think the life of the world's premier crossword puzzle editor would be, well, fun and games. But consider this: Make one little mistake, and a world of hungry word fanatics is waiting to pounce.
For Will Shortz, longtime editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle and now subject of the new documentary "Wordplay," those moments come very rarely, maybe a dozen times a year. But they burn. Like when, sometime in the late '90s, he wrote the clue "Louisville landmark."
The nine-letter word was RUPPARENA. That's Rupp Arena, in Lexington, Ky., not Louisville. But an overly hasty Internet search steered him wrong. The bad clue went out, and the mail flowed in.
"For a week, I thought I was the only person in the country that didn't know the Rupp Arena was in Lexington," Shortz says in an interview, wincing visibly at the memory.
Mostly though, Shortz gets it right — he writes more than 30,000 clues a year — and he's a hero to untold numbers of puzzle addicts, among them a former president (Bill Clinton) and a popular comic (Jon Stewart). And now "Wordplay," which opens nationwide Friday, is shining a spotlight on a man who's a household name to many (he's also National Public Radio's "Puzzle Master") but would hardly be recognizable on the street, and doesn't even have an assistant to help answer his mail.
Yet there's one word that's not discussed in "Wordplay," and it's a six-letter one: Sudoku, the addictive puzzle craze that originated in Japan, has captivated Britain and is now — in Shortz's words — "crushing" crossword puzzles in the U.S.
Sudoku involves numbers, not words, and logic, not accumulated knowledge. But Shortz has embraced it, and it's been very good to him: He has 27 Sudoku books on the market, according to his editors, the largest market share of any author. Put another way, he has 5 million copies in print, and another million rolling off the presses. Which is surely a lot of money in the bank — "you can do the math," is all he'll say — for a man who got into puzzles for love, assuming he'd be poor, but happy.
What do we learn from a conversation with Will Shortz? First, that he is very, very serious about puzzles.
So serious that he invented an academic discipline. When Shortz, now 53, arrived at Indiana University more than 30 years ago, there was only one thing he wanted to study — after all, he'd sold his first puzzle at age 14. So he convinced the school to let him pursue an independent major in — quick, what's a 12-letter word for the study of puzzles? — e-n-i-g-m-a-t-o-l-o-g-y. He wrote his thesis on word puzzles before the year 1860.
advertising (Lest he sound unbearably nerdy, Shortz doesn't actually look that way — Stewart, who says he'd expected a man from whom he could steal lunch money, calls him the "Errol Flynn of crossword puzzles.")
He ascended to the Times job in 1993. Working out of his home in suburban Westch to 75 puzzles sent each week by "puzzle constructors" hoping to be published. Shortz chooses the best of them, rewrites half the clues himself, and puts them through a vetting process. The Times' crosswords are published in the Seattle P-I.
Part of his time also is spent handling reader mail, which has slowed over the years. But one need only hear excerpts from his favorite letters to see how seriously fans take their crosswords.
"You are sick, sick, sick!" wrote one. "You should be hanged by your cojones," wrote another. Sometimes readers were just irate that a puzzle was too tough for its anointed day: "It's MONDAY, Mr. Shortz, not FRIDAY," one reader fumed.
Another fact about Shortz: He is extremely focused. At the end of the day, Shortz heads to a nearby club to work on his "hobby" — table tennis. "I enjoy the geometry of it," he says. He plays about three hours an evening, five to six days a week. His goal is to become one of the best in the country in his age group. After this workout, it's back to the office for some evening work. Weekdays blur into weekends.
Somehow he found the time to add the job of best-selling Sudoku author, a role that fell into his lap a year ago. With the craze sweeping Britain, St. Martin's Press asked if he could produce three Sudoku books in 10 days. With a collaborator in Europe, he got them done. More followed.
Shortz is diplomatic in discussing the two puzzle types, somewhat like a father discussing two different children — one academic and a little nerdy, the other flashier and hipper.
"My feeling is that Sudoku is supplementing crosswords rather than taking away from them," he says. "Both puzzles will be around forever."
But Shortz seems more beholden to his first love. He postulates, in fact, that we are actually living in "the golden age of the crossword."
"They've never been as interesting," Shortz says. Years ago, the clues were obscure references from unabridged editions of dictionaries. Now, he says, "they are almost exclusively about what people know. They have humor, trickery, deception, playfulness."
Think about it, Shortz says. In this era of the short attention span, you have a fast-paced activity that involves 76 clues — 76 different subjects to think about, ever so briefly.
"It's the perfect entertainment for the 21st century," he says.