Guest Column

Puzzle master brings out brain trust

By Juliet Schoen / Staff Writer

I have been doing the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle since I was teenager and that was a long, long time ago. How could I refuse an invitation to hear Will Shortz, puzzle editor of the New York Times, at Royce Hall as part of the “UCLA Live” series?

It was a daunting experience. I was surrounded by a sea of eggheads who could make anyone with an inferiority complex feel even more inferior. After discussing his work and answering questions, Shortz prepared some puzzle games for the knowledgeable audience. The responses were amazingly swift.

Shortz divided the audience into two sections and asked for a volunteer on one side who would be “the champion” and then two volunteers who would be the challengers. I cringed in my seat, fearful that I might be chosen. However, there was no problem getting volunteers among this bunch of know-it-alls.

The first set of questions involved filling in the missing word between two related words while retaining alphabetical order. As soon as Shortz said, “Earth and Mars, the answer, “Jupiter,” was shouted out immediately. The champions and challengers were up to the task as the puzzles became more and more difficult.

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Another game was introduced dealing with the kinds of puns that delight Shortz. These involved ending sentences with the name of a country’s capital. For instance, a simplified version is “a man and his son were playing golf and the son said, let me carry your … Baghdad!” Even worse was the one about the psychiatrist analyzing a patient as being … Taipei! (Type A, get it?)

Well, a merry time was had by all us puzzle lovers who learned quite a bit about the mysteries of construction and solving. Shortz receives approximately 60 puzzles each week and generally changes half the definitions in the ones he chooses. His aim is to make the puzzles more reflective of the times and, to this end, he keeps updated on movies, television and popular music.

Shortz gave a brief history of the crossword puzzle, explaining how it was started in 1914 as a small grid in the now-defunct newspaper, the World. The puzzle immediately caught on and was quickly picked up by other newspapers.

“A couple of fellows named Simon and Schuster, who attended Columbia University together, decided to set up a publishing company,” Shortz said. “A friend suggested they publish a collection of puzzles. They were ashamed of starting out that way but published the first puzzle book, using a phony name. The book was an instant success.”

The New York Times did not start publishing its puzzles until 1942 because it was felt that the puzzle was not quite worthy. (The comics still haven’t made it.) There have been only four editors, starting with Margaret Farrar, who made up most of the rules, and then Will Weng, Eugene Maleska and, in 1993, Will Shortz.

Shortz has been a life-long puzzle aficionado and sold his first crossword at the age of 14. By designing his own major at Indiana University, he was able to achieve the unique degree of enigmatologist, a name he coined himself. He achieved notoriety when he appeared in a documentary film called “Wordplay,” winning fans all over the country with his wit and charm.

In his lecture, he described some of his favorite puzzles. One used a star to help form a word. For instance, the bird “starling” would take up only four boxes, with a star in the first, and the letters “ing” in the next three. What made the puzzle so remarkable was the fact that the words “big dipper” filled the center grid and the stars formed the shape of the constellation. The most famous puzzle was the one that appeared on Election Day, 1996. The clue, “tomorrow’s headline,” could have been solved as either “Clinton elected” or “Bob Dole elected.”

I am one of the 50 million Americans who solve (or try to solve) puzzles each week. Why do we spend our time filling in little white boxes?

It’s a puzzlement!

13StarsManager
13StarsManagerhttps://malibutimes.com
The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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