Who Needs Sudoku?

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The most dispiriting thing about the popular talk shows, reality programs and buddy movie comedies is that they're often about stupid people. Well, I don't want entertainment to show me the lowest common denominator. I want to see people who are smarter, funnier, cleverer than I am. And there are plenty. Most of them, I suspect, are in Wordplay. And if they had a leader, it would be Shortz: President for Life in the Puzzle Principality, King of Crosswords.

"When you imagine Crossword Guy," says Jon Stewart, "you imagine he's 13 to 14 inches tall, doesn't care to go more than five minutes without his inhaler — and yet [Shortz is] a giant man. He's the Errol Flynn of crossword puzzling."

Shortz is indeed a tall, genial fellow and the best salesman crosswords could have. A puzzler from youth, he took a doctorate of Enigmatology (in a course of study he invented for himself) at Indiana University, was named the fourth crossword editor of the Times in 1993. That was the year of Shortz's 40th birthday and crosswords' 80th. The first one, devised by Arthur Wynne, appeared in the New York World on Dec. 21, 1913, and made the game an immediate sensation. But it was the achievement of Margaret Farrar, who became the Times' first crossword editor in1942 and served in that capacity until 1969, to codify the form.

The daily puzzle hasn't changed since her early days. It's still a 225-space grid, 15 by 15, with 180-degree symmetry and about a sixth of the squares black. The words, of no fewer than three letters, are interlocked. And nothing naughty, please. Reagle, one of the puzzlemakers who appears in Wordplay, mourns that he is forbidden to use vowel-rich words like urine and enema. (I'd guess that somebody somewhere has created R- or X-rated crosswords — English is as at least as rich in obscenities as it is in four-letter words for Irish slave — but I haven't seen them.)

Farrar was succeeded by Will Weng, and then by Eugene Maleska, a New York City school teacher. I remember being pleased to read of Maleska's accession, for I knew his name as a Dell puzzle constructor. But Maleska was a conservative chap, a one-man Academie Francaise of English. He seemed to believe that the language had frozen decades before. Cultural references tended toward opera trivia and the novels of long-dead white males.

His management of the crossword franchise was severely traditional as well. On Sundays, for example, the Times devotes an entire page to puzzles. Maleska's selection of puzzles never varied. On top was a large, stately crossword, as imposing and exciting as Queen Victoria's bustle. Beneath it was one of three puzzles: an acrostic (twice as much work for half the fun), a diagramless crossword (you're given the clues but not the grid — why?) and, once in four weeks, Mel Taub's Puns and Anagrams — sort of a kindergarten cryptic. You never saw the features that made Games magazine such instructive fun, such as Flower Power or the Spiral, and rarely found those puzzles' authors, some of the brightest minds in puzzling.

Enter Shortz, nearly 40 years younger than Maleska, and eager to revive the Times' most carefully studied page. A John XXIII to Maleska's Pius XII, Shortz embraced the modern: slang, hipper pop references, more devious wordsmanship. He also instituted a sliding scale of difficulty for the puzzle week: the easiest one on Monday and Tuesday, the most challenging on Friday and Saturday.

Into the stale Times stable Shortz brought both the best of the old guard, including Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, who had been creating cryptic puzzles for The Atlanticsince 1976, and some of the young geniuses, like Henry Hook and Patrick Berry, who had made their names at Games. And for the first time, the Times gave credit to the authors of the daily puzzles, who had previously been anonymous. (The daily crossword was the one place in the paper where the cult of personality bypassed the author and resided only with the editor.)

The new guy's innovations didn't please every Times solver. "You are sick, sick, sick," goes one of the letters Shortz reads aloud in Wordplay. Another correspondent is polite but perplexed: "This kvetching thing that's going on, I can't seem to get a grasp on it. 'The kvetcher's cry': 'Oy vey'? I don't get it. How is it used? Is it a Northern thing?" But most puzzlers I know are pleased with his work. More than that: he has given fresh life to their daily preoccupation.

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