The master of Wordplay

“Hey, what’s a seven-letter word for a type of soup native to Switzerland? The second letter has to be ‘p’ because I’m pretty sure that 23-across is peppermint, but I could be wrong…”

“Hey, what’s a seven-letter word for a type of soup native to Switzerland? The second letter has to be ‘p’ because I’m pretty sure that 23-across is peppermint, but I could be wrong…”

That’s the sound of a novice attempting a Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. At least it would be if that were a real clue (it’s not). To a newbie though, most Sunday clues seem that unanswerable. We have Will Shortz to thank for that.

Shortz is the current editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle and will be in Portland this week for a Thursday evening lecture at the First Congregational Church.

The New York Times crossword, in the tradition of most newspapers, gets more difficult as the week progresses, culminating in a real brain buster on Sunday. Shortz makes sure a question like the soup one above doesn’t appear on a Monday puzzle, but on Sunday it’s no holds barred. And as hard as the clues may seem, they’ve all got answers.

When it comes to crosswords, newspapers and books generally accept puzzles submitted by people who may or may not be professionals. If the puzzle is good, they’ll take it. Sometimes they need to be tweaked for clarity or the level of difficulty needs to be adjusted. This is what Shortz does for The New York Times, which is widely considered the end-all be-all of crosswords, and don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise.

At the tender age of 14, Shortz sold his first puzzle to a youth magazine called Venture. In the following years he continued to create puzzles and contributed to Dell Publications. He followed through with his passion into college and designed his own program of study at Indiana University. He graduated in 1974 with a degree in enigmatolgy, the study of puzzles, and is currently the only person in the world to have a formal degree of that kind. Shortz then pursued a law degree at the University of Virginia, but forewent the bar exam to make a career out of what he really loved: puzzles.

And he did just that.

Shortz first worked for Games magazine, which featured everything from word puzzles to picture puzzles, for 15 years before becoming the editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle, a position he’s held since 1993. He is also the founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and is the puzzle master of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday.

The 2006 documentary Wordplay, directed by Patrick Creadon, takes an in-depth look at Shortz’s day job editing crossword puzzles and creating his own. The film also profiles several hopeful contenders for a tournament at an annual crossword convention in Samford, Conn. The documentary follows these puzzle-lovers through their daily practice routines as they gear up for the big weekend. It’s a real laugh in a kind of sweet way. Some are the super-intellectuals you’d expect to be crossword experts, and others are just plain goofy.

Of course, competitive puzzle solvers do not round out Shortz’s fan base. Wordplay delivers interviews with several high-profile celebrities, such as talk show host Jon Stewart, New York Yankee Mike Mussina and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who all claim to sit down with a New York Times crossword puzzle on a near-daily basis, courtesy of Shortz.

“Come on, Shortz. Bring it!” Stewart yells on camera, as he attacks his daily crossword. At another point in the film he remarks, “I am a Times puzzle fan. I will solve, in a hotel, a USA Today, but I don’t feel good about myself when I do it.”

Wordplay is a must-see for anyone even mildly interested in crossword puzzles, or anyone looking for an entertaining, well-made documentary. At 94 minutes long, it won’t take up a lot of your time, and you’ll feel better–happier–having watched it.

Shortz is an interesting man, a precedent in his field. From his clips in Wordplay, he should give an interesting talk. Doesn’t the word enigmatology spark your interest?

He will be at the First Congregational Church on Southwest Park Avenue, Thursday, May 10. The event begins at 7 p.m. and is sponsored by Literary Arts, a statewide, nonprofit organization that frequently sponsors literary and language-based events.