Who Needs Sudoku?

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Shortz doesn't spend all his time at the Times. He is also the puzzlemaster for NPR's Sunday morning news show. ("I'm blessed," he says, "to work for the two greatest news organizations in the country: the New York Times and National Public Radio.") He occasionally contributes puzzles to Games. And since he was 25 (he's now 53), he has run an annual crossword puzzle tournament at the Marriott in Stamford, Ct. He founded it in 1978, mostly out of an urge — a strange one, considering the solitude in which crosswords are constructed and solved — to meet other puzzle people. At the first tournament, the guest of honor was Margaret Farrar. And in 2005 filmmaker Patrick Creadon brought a crew there to record the competition, which would be the centerpiece for Wordplay.


The Times puzzle under Shortz' aegis has some famous fans, and Wordplay has tracked down most of them. Stewart, attacking a Tuesday puzzle, says, "I'm so confident, I'm gonna do it in glue stick." Dan Okrent, a former TIME executive who was the New York Times' Public Editor, notes that the best crossword solvers are mathematicians and musicians. (This applies especially to cryptic puzzles, a British refinement of the form that was imported to America when Stephen Sondheim created 40 or so for New York magazine in the early '70s. A few years later the cryptic became a regular feature of Harper's magazine in puzzles constructed by E.R. Galli and Richard Maltby, another Broadway lyricist. One of Maltby's songs: "Crossword Puzzle.") A pair of musicians, Indigo Girls, confide their shock and pleasure when they found themselves as an answer to a Times puzzle.

Yankees ace Mike Mussina, a Stanford (but not Stamford) grad, is a noted solver, in ink, of crosswords. (He enjoys other word and trivia games. A couple weeks ago the Times noted that Moose and his catcher whiled away a rain delay compiling a list of TV actors who had starred in three hit series. Anyone? Anyone? Hint: consider the initials H.L. and M.L.)

Ken Burns, the doyen of TV documentaries, notes that a city like New York is founded on "a sense of grids. You know, it's all about boxes. You live in a box, and you ride in a box [the subway] to go to work in a box. Then we have this wonderful newspaper that's boxy-shaped that has in it this page, which is my favorite page in the whole newspaper. And there are a set of boxes in which you kind of practice the wordplay of this particularly exquisite language."

Bill Clinton says he would work on a Times crossword in those White House lunch breaks — when for a few moments, he would be disturbed by neither aides nor interns. Our last smart President found a life lesson in puzzle-solving: "Sometimes you have to go at a problem the way I go at a complicated crossword puzzle...You start with what you know the answer to and you just build on it, eventually you can unravel the whole puzzle... And I think a lot of difficult, complex problems are like that: you have to find some aspect of it you understand and build on it, until you can unravel the mystery that you're trying to understand"

Clinton and his opponent in the 1996 Presidential race were the subjects of the most famous daily puzzle in Shortz' reign (and, the editor says, his favorite). In that Nov. 5 puzzle the clue for the central entry (two seven-letter spaces) read: "Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper!" It could be solved as either CLINTON ELECTED or BOBDOLE ELECTED. How? Each intersecting Down clue yielded two answers

Black Halloween animal (CAT or BAT)
French 101 word (LUI or OUI)
Provider of support, for short (IRA or BRA)
Sewing shop purchase (YARN or YARD)
Short writings (BITS or BIOS)
Trumpet (BOAST or BLAST)
Much-debated political inits. (NRA or ERA)

Through some clear, clever graphics, all this is spelled out in Wordplay. What you won't learn in the movie is that the puzzle's constructor, Jeremiah (Jerry) Farrell — a Butler University professor of, what else, mathematics — had submitted a simpler version to the Times for election Day 1980, with CARTER and REAGAN as the interchangeable words. Maleska turned it down, supposedly asking, "What if John Anderson wins?" (I still shake my head in wonder at Farrell's brilliance, and Maleska's myopia.) Sixteen years later, Farrell revived and revised the idea. Though Shortz typically revises about half of the clues in an average puzzle, and did tweak the surrounding clues, he left the central section gloriously intact.

Wordplay is every bit as smart as the Times puzzles, puzzlemakers and puzzle solvers. Creadon is a master of the suave segue—as when Okrent observes that "Using Reagle on Tuesday is like using Barry Bonds in Little League," and the film cuts to a clip of Bonds getting struck out by Mussina, leading to the star pitcher's segment.

The puzzle to which Okrent refers is one Reagle constructed for the film. The theme is Word Play, and it uses the key words hidden in new configurations: word in "neW ORDers" and "cross sWORDs," play in "PLAYa Del Mar" and "toP LAYers." We see Reagle creating the puzzle, then Shortz accepting it and finally Clinton, Stewart, Burns, Okrent and Indigo Girls solving it. The first clue is "Warhead weapon," four letters. Stewart and Burns jump on ICBM, while Clinton, who's been in charge of these things, says, "it's gotta be an ICBM or a MIRV." As the theme becomes clear, he observes, "Not too hard but it's very clever."

As the celebrity solvers attack the puzzle, the box of the movie screen is divided into sections, highlighting the clues and the spaces for their answers. Like we said, smart people on both sides of the camera. The one thing the movie doesn't reveal is why so many of these renowned puzzlers — Clinton, Stewart and Burns — are left-handed. Coincidence? Or conspiracy? We solicit an explanation from our Mensa-worthy readers.


The most expert puzzle solvers are an odd, rare breed, and one to be cherished. For the aficionado, Wordplay performs a special service. It lends faces to revered names, the heroes of puzzleworld: constructors Payne and Reagle, Stanley Newman, Mel Rosen and Fred Piscop. (I wish I could have found '90s phenom Patrick Berry, to whom Maltby and Galli occasionally sublet their Atlantic cryptic page, and Henry Hook, the dark prince of cryptics and crossword editor of the Boston Globe.)

Solving a crossword takes brains and patience. Solving it in a few minutes, standing on a stage filling the spaces on a large board, with hundreds of people watching, demands poise, steel nerves and a killer instinct. These requirements strictly limit the number of serious competitors at the Stamford stampede. The same people tend to be finalists; in a 13-year stretch from 1988 to 2000, the top three slots were filled by only six players.

The small pool creates stars within the crossword galaxy. One of these is Ellen Ripstein, a researcher for a TV game show (could it be Jeopardy?) who, after a dozen or more years in the top five at Stamford, was profiled in a front-page Wall Street Journal story in 2001, and won the tournament that year, to chants of "El-len! El-len!" The lifelong New Yorker describes herself as "a little nerd girl," but she knows her worth. "I had a boyfriend once" — once, she says — "who would sort of try to put me down. And I would say, 'Well, what are you the best in the country at?'"

Among Ripstein's regular opponents are Payne, who is given to theatrical effusions onstage, and Al Sanders, a friendly fellow from Fort Collins, Colo., who has been often a finalist but never a winner. But in 2005 a kid gunslinger hit town: Tyler Hinman, 20, a student at Renssselaer Polytechnic Institute, who can do the Sunday Times puzzle in six to eight minutes. He also has a shrine to beer in his dorm room.

Throughout the weekend tournament, Shortz bustles around, announcing the rules and the winners of each of the seven puzzles. On Saturday night there's a talent show — the search for an "American Crossword Idol" — at which Ellen demonstrates her baton-twirling expertise. Another conventioneer, Vic Fleming, sings and strums a cruciverbalist's country lament: "But if you don't come across / I'm gonna be down."

On Sunday the top three finishers have a brain-off in front of the judges and several hundred non-winners. In 2005 the finalists were Sanders, Payne and Hinman. We wouldn't dare say who took home the trophy, except to note that the most dangerous word in the final puzzle was 1 Across. The clue: "Stark and richly detailed, as writing. (9)"

After Zolaesque exertions, and a little heartbreak, a winner does emerge. His victory statement: "Words are failing me. I'm just glad they waited until now to do so."

Wordplay should prove "a feline bite (6)" — catnip — to the millions of crossword addicts, and to lots of others who enjoy a tough game played with smarts and heart. For me, the movie and its milieu induced a little ache of nostalgia. For a decade or so I solved the Times crossword every day. Then, in 1981, I discovered Sondheim's book of cryptics, and the devious, luxuriant word play had me hooked. Now I search them out in Harper's, The Nation, The Atlantic (where they have been demoted to appearing only online — shame!), Games and the book collections assembled by Newman, Hook and Cox and Rathvon.

Now that I've finished this story, I'll go relax my nerves and stir my cerebrum with a good cryptic. The rest of you, try a Times crossword. And to Pat Corliss, happy Sudoku-solving. Sorry I never did figure out the appeal of that numbers game.

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