Meet Will Shortz,
Crossword Editor of
The New York Times
Aspiring Table Tennis Champion
Hometown: Pleasantville, New York (but raised on an Arabian horse farm in
Favorite non-puzzle activity: Table Tennis
Q Do you have a favorite word?
A Yes. My favorite word is “ucalegon,”… it’s a neighbor whose house is on fire. It comes from Greek myth in an instance where there was a neighbor whose house was on fire. I’ve never had occasion to use the word outside of saying it’s my favorite word. If I ever had to use it nobody would know what the hell I was talking about.
Q Crosswords generally seem to be associated with older generations — my grandparents work on them every day — but is there a boom of younger people doing crosswords now?
A Absolutely … last fall I had a whole week of puzzles published by teenagers who ranged from 15 to 19. My sense is that a lot more young people are solving crosswords than ever before … In the whole history of The Times crossword up to my editing, which started in 1993, there were only three teens known to have crosswords published in The Times. And next week, I’ll publish my 15th teenager … [Young people] are not only solving crosswords, but they’re so excited about it, and have become so good at it, that they’re making them, and top quality puzzles too.
Q A strong theme in the documentary film “Wordplay” is that a range of people are puzzlers. Why do you think people do puzzles?
A There are lots of answers to that: First of all, why do people do puzzles at all? It’s because we like to use our minds and we get pleasure from solving problems — you know, we’re faced with problems every day in life … most of them don’t have clear-cut or perfect solutions. We just muddle through life as best we can and move from one problem to another, and never really get satisfaction from doing things perfectly. The greatest thing about a human-made puzzle is that there is a clear-cut solution, and when you’ve solved the puzzle you have perfection, and that is a great feeling.
The second thing is, most challenges we face in life we only see the middle part of. We drive a car but maybe we don’t really understand how the engine works. There’s just so much in life we don’t understand. With a crossword or Sudoku or maybe a KenKen, you see the process through start to finish and when you get that final answer it’s very satisfying because you fully understand what you’ve done.
Q I have a friend who’s just addicted to KenKen. It’s like 8:30 in the morning and the first thing he has to do is finish the KenKen.
A Well, I’ve sort of had to cut myself off, because I was doing them every night, and I said, “Okay, I really like this, but I have to do other things, too.”
Q It seems to me that completing a crossword puzzle is an individual activity that’s often done in groups. Do you have any interest in the social aspect of puzzling?
A It is kind of odd, you know? Puzzle solving is naturally a solitary activity, but because you do it by yourself all the time, it’s nice to get together with others and do it, too … It connects you with other people who tend to be smart and well-read, well-rounded, with quirky minds … You probably don’t even talk much about puzzles. But you share a similarity in personality, a flexibility of thinking, often a good sense of humor. When people come to my crossword championship for the first time, they say it’s like finding a lost tribe.
Q So I’ve been listening to the NPR Sunday Puzzle since I was young, with my mother in the car on the way to church. Any people from the Puzzler that stick out in your memory?
A Yeah, one guy wrote me — he and his wife lived in Boston and they were vacationing in Rhode Island where at the time there was no NPR station carrying the NPR Puzzler on Sunday morning, so they drove to the highest point they could find in Rhode Island, which was a hill, and parked next to a huge metal trash collector so they could pull in the NPR signal from Boston and hear the puzzle.
Q That’s like they solved a puzzle to hear the Puzzler.
A (laughs) There’s someone in the midwest, a farmer who claims that his cows gave better milk when the NPR Puzzler was on. There was a minister, in North Dakota I think, who rearranged the time of her service so that she and her congregation could listen to the Puzzler … I hear from a lot of people who try to solve the challenge puzzle during service.
Q I don’t think many people would dispute that The New York Times Crossword is the gold standard. What sets it apart?
A There’s more intellectual meat in the puzzle than in any other puzzle in America. Even when the puzzle is easy, as it is on Monday and Tuesday, there’s substance there. There are twists of phrase, there’s literary information — you just feel like it’s intellectually more satisfying than any other puzzle. Secondly, the quality of the puzzle is better, just in the sense of the quality of the interlock, the liveliness of the vocabulary, the freshness of the clues, things like that.
Q Any puzzles that are particularly dear to your heart?
A My favorite crossword of the past year in The Times was one where the black squares formed the letters of “LIES”… near the bottom of the puzzle was the answer “ten,” and my clue for that was “the number of clues in this puzzle that contain factual inaccuracies.” So the theme was lies, and you not only had to solve the puzzle, you also had to figure out which clues were wrong … one clue was “the chemical element with the symbol ‘Fe’,” and the answer was “neon,” which was just a nasty trick, because both iron and neon have four letters and they share two of them.
Q Any angry people?
A Well, yeah! (laughs) I’ve discovered that anytime you do something interesting and fresh and really nice, there will be people who hate it. And conversely, no matter how awful something is, there will be someone who likes it.