Of course Will Shortz lives in Pleasantville, N.Y. That’s the perfect environment for the man who adds color to our lives as we work through the black-and-white New York Times’ Sunday crossword puzzle, carried in The Gazette.
Don’t get that analogy? Think across and down cinematic lines to fill in the blanks. It helps to be a movie nerd.
Shortz, 61, may be the ultimate word nerd. He started making crossword puzzles at age 8 or 9, when his mom handed him some paper with a grid and explained the concept of interlocking letters. Her goal was to keep him quiet during her bridge club meeting that afternoon. She succeeded — and sent the bells and whistles clanging inside his head.
He sold his first puzzle at age 14 and through the years, has penned more than 500 puzzle books. He’ll give audiences a glimpse inside his enigmatic world during a give-and-take program Wednesday (9/11) at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City.
He’ll discuss his favorite New York Times puzzles, how to make a crossword, and crossword history, then do a Q&A with the audience, followed by audience participation word games where he invites people to shout out the answers.
He’s pretty much designed his own life path, beginning with his Indiana University days in the early ’70s. Shortz created his own degree in puzzling — Enigmatology — combining elements of English, linguistics, mathematics, journalism and philosophy. He wrote his thesis on the history of American word puzzles before 1860 and also studied the psychology of puzzles, to examine how the brain works when solving them, as well as their psychological appeal.
He’s not alone in his fascination. Crossword puzzles are solved around the world.
“Every country has crosswords,” he says by phone from his bucolic village home, about 45 minutes north of Manhattan. “They’re popular everywhere. The big exception would be a country like China, where it’s difficult to make a crossword. Their language is not written phonetically, like ours, but in ideograms, and it’s more difficult to make crosswords in their language. But even China has crosswords.”
What’s our global fascination?
“Every puzzle has its own appeal,” he says. “Crossword is appealing because it takes something that we use every day, like language to communicate our ideas and information, and turns it into a game — and that’s just inherently appealing. Solving a crossword is like solving a mystery. Crosswords play with the brain.
“In general terms, I think solving puzzles is a way for us to put the world in order and give us a feeling of being in control. We’re faced with puzzles every day, problems every day, and we just muddle through, doing the best we can. We don’t find perfect solutions — we just do the best we can and move on to the next thing,” he says.
“With a human-made puzzle, we carry the process through from start to end, and when you find the solution or fill in the last square of a crossword or Sudoku, it’s an exhilarating feeling. You have achieved perfection and you’ve done it yourself.”
He’s achieved his own level of perfection.
Shortz established the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 1978; signed on as the puzzle master on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” in 1987; and became editor of the daily crosswords in The New York Times in 1993. He’s also been the editor of Games magazine for 15 years and owns the world’s largest puzzle library, bursting with more than 25,000 books and magazines dating back to 1533.
That’s a whole lot of interlocking paths.
“I’ve always loved words,” he says. “My mom was a writer, and we would discuss language and words around the dinner table. I was good at school, and just always loved thinking and puzzles.”
He says he’s especially good at anagrams. As a kid, he looked for words within his many-lettered hometown of Crawfordsville, Ind., and the surrounding town names, making up name games inside his head. In school, he wrote up quizzes for his friends, using questions he thought should be on their tests. And even though he’s a wellspring of trivia and made his own “Jeopardy!” board when the program hit the airwaves, he says he’s too slow on the button to compete well on the brain-teasing game show.
Doesn’t matter. He succeeds on so many other levels — including table tennis.
“I’m fanatical about table tennis,” he says.
He owns the Westchester Table Tennis Center in Pleasantville, and aspires to be the national champion in his age group. He’s played at more than 150 clubs around the world and in more states than anyone else. His goal is to play in all 50 states. He’ll hit number 42 when he picks up a pingpong paddle in Iowa City and 43 when he plays in Minneapolis the next day.
Along the way, he has plenty of editing to keep him occupied. He receives 75 to 100 crossword puzzle submissions each week. Each one gets examined and each contributor receives a response via email, along with a comment. Those accepted are filed under a day of the week, based on difficulty. Monday’s puzzles are the easiest, Sunday’s are the largest and hardest.
“I’m a very hands-on editor, so on average, about half the clues in the Times crossword are my own,” he says.
He typesets the puzzles and sends them to three test solvers. They recheck every word or fact, offers comments, then Shortz polishes them and emails them to the Times, where they appear in print and online.
He works from his home office, where his desk is surrounded by books on 60 feet of shelving, chock full of reference books and books on topics ranging from opera and Broadway to country music and mythology. The Internet has changed the way he fact-checks, but he still kicks it old-school with a dictionary and thesaurus.
He strives to vary the puzzles’ themes and contributors and puts himself in the shoes of puzzle-solvers.
“I want people to come away in the end feeling excited, feeling amused. I like to give them some laughs through the puzzles,” he says. “I like them to feel their brain has been twisted, and I like to leave them with a good feeling, so they’ll come back for more.”
He’s even “made it” into pop culture. He gets a little literary jab in the romantic comedy “2 Across,” when playwright Jerry Mayer refers to him as an SOB as two strangers on a train wrestle with the Times crossword.
“A lot of people tell me they have a love/hate relationship with me,” Shortz says, getting the last laugh.