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Posts Tagged ‘crosswords’

In theory, the last night of the WPC — the awards ceremony and goodbye banquet — is the only one that is entirely puzzle-free. In practice, it doesn’t necessarily work out like that. And if you’re a reporter on the lookout for more story material, thank God for that.

I was seated at the American table, which included, in addition to the team, the full entourage: former American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champions Stan Newman and Nancy Schuster (who won in 1978, the first year the tournament was held); Helene Hovanec of the National Puzzlers’ League, who helped organize the very first WPC; and, of course, the puzzlingly-ubiquitous Will Shortz, who helps run the World Puzzle Federation when he’s not editing the Times crossword, serving as puzzle master for NPR, organizing the crossword championships, or hosting the National Sudoku Championship.

Even with the alcohol and conversation flowing freely, it took all of 15 minutes — approximately the amount of time until one has had his or fill of yet another meal of potato-and-[insert name of meat]-liver stew — before things got puzzling, as it were. On my left, Stan, the crossword editor of Newsday, handed out copies of some recent crosswords to Zack and Roger, whose puzzling prowess extends to word puzzles — they have each finished in the top ten at the American Crossword Tournament multiple times. (Earlier in the week, when I interviewed him, Zack told me the Times‘s Saturday puzzle usually takes him about eight minutes; the Sunday magazine’s, a minute or two longer.) Roger and Zack were also each nearly featured in the charming 2006 documentary Wordplay; their scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

They flipped immediately to Stan’s Saturday puzzle. Someone suggested they compete. “I have a couple of glasses of wine in me,” Zack said, “but OK,” and within seconds the race was on.

On the other side of the table, I asked Will if he was looking forward to our guided tour of Minsk the next day. He said yes, but he indicated Minsk was never exactly on the top of his travel list. Someone joked it probably wasn’t even near his top 25, and when I joked it probably wasn’t even in his top 25 that begin with an ‘M,’ a game of Name-25-Cities-Will-Shortz-Would-Rather-Visit-Than-Minsk broke out, with Wei-Hwa as amanuensis. City names flew at Will from all directions. Milan? Yes. Montreal? No. (Already been.) Montevideo? Yes. Madison? No. (Too domestic.) Mexico City? Yes. Montgomery? No. (Too… Alamabamian.)

Meanwhile, on my left, Roger was filling in the final squares in his crossword. I looked over at Zack’s paper — he was behind. “Done,” Roger said, laying down his pencil. “Damn it!” Zack said. “You killed me.”

I looked at my watch. “He finished that in about nine minutes,” I said.

“Eight thirty-three,” Thomas said, smiling, and pointed at his digital watch.

Immediately, Roger moved on to another crossword while Zack finished his.

Malibu? Yes. Montpelier? Nope. Moscow? Definitely…

Zack finished the Saturday puzzle and flipped to a Monday or Tuesday. His pencil zipped from box to box as if he were just scribbling random words. (He’d simply put down music already finished in his head! Page after page of it, as if he was just taking dictation…) On my right, the list of 25 Cities Will Shortz Would Rather Visit Than Minsk had stalled at 24. From behind me, Thomas called out a candidate. “OK,” Will said, “I’ll take that.” Evidently Thomas’s puzzling skills also extend beyond the boundaries of the WPC.

I tried challenging the group with one of my favorite dinner-table trivia questions: Name the ten countries with exactly four letters in their name. Answers barraged me from all four corners of the table: Cuba, Fiji, Chad! Peru! Oman! Togo!  [Note to reader: If you want to stump a group of crossword champions, breaking out the four-letter-countries question is not the way to go.] It took less than a minute for them to come up with the first nine. After a momentary thoughtful silence — it’s always the last one that’s toughest, isn’t it? — it was Thomas once again who finished off the list. “Laos!” he called out. And he is one of the few who doesn’t do crosswords.

I tried again, this time with my favorite brain-teaser: the “pirate booty” problem. Will grinned, a glint in his eye — the look of a natural-born puzzler who has encountered something fresh, something challenging. I was a bit surprised he hadn’t heard that one before. Wei-Hwa had. “If that’s the best brain-teaser you’ve ever heard…” he said, not needing to finish the thought.

While Will pondered the pirates, Simon Anthony of the British team joined the table and began talking crosswords with Roger. They explained to me the difference between British and American crosswords. (In short, British crosswords resemble cryptics, and thus utilize more word play, whereas American puzzles contain more unusual words due to the fact that every square must be used both vertically & horizontally.) Simon helped Roger work through another Saturday puzzle.

Behind me, Will was emceeing an impromptu game of Categories. (Apparently he had dismissed the pirate problem.) “Shortstop,” I heard. “Knuckleball.” The base word was MINSK; they had just finished off baseball terms. “OK,” Will continued. “Auto makes.” Mazda, Isuzu, Nissan… Words five letters or longer ending in ‘k’. Stank, Knock.

Back, one more time, to my left. Simon was telling Roger about his favorite British crossword clue of all time. “Nice,” Roger said. Then he showed Simon the best clue he ever wrote himself, for a crossword that appeared in the Times. “That’s beautiful,” Simon said, sounding like an art historian appreciating a piece in a museum. “Just beautiful.”

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Last night I attended a panel discussion at the Japan Society, in Midtown, called “Puzzling the World,” about the popularity of Sudoku and crosswords. First Japanese puzzle designer Maki Kaji, who is known as the “Godfather of Sudoku,” spoke through an interpreter about how he discovered Sudoku in the mid-’80s and, 20 years later, turned it into the phenomenon it is today. Then Will Shortz, crossword editor of the Times and all-around puzzle lord (if you don’t know who he is, odds are you’re not reading this anyway), discussed his all-time favorite crosswords and how he makes his daily Times selections. Finally Liane Hansen, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday (where Shortz does his popular “Sunday Puzzle” segment), moderated a discussion with both of them.

Some fun facts and other highlights from the evening:

  • Shortz’s “Sunday Puzzle” podcast gets downloaded over 100,000 times per month.
  • When Kaji came upon Sudoku, in a games magazine in 1984, it was an obscure puzzle called Number Place. He was the one to name it Sudoku, “su” being Japanese for “number,” “duku” meaning “single” (like a bachelor). He chose that as the name because “the single-digit number should be kept alone and unmarried, like a bachelor.”
  • The name Sudoku is only trademarked in Japan (by Kaji); everywhere else it is in the public domain. Thus, with the exception of Kaji’s company’s puzzles, Japan is actually the only country in the world where Sudoku is not called Sudoku.
  • Sudoku, while always popular in Japan, didn’t truly take off until 2004, when Kaji got it a spot in the Times of London, and the Brits fell in love with it. A year later it appeared for the first time in an American paper (The N.Y. Post). The rest is history.
  • The crossword puzzle first appeared in 1913, making its debut in the New York World, and became a national craze in the ’20s. Strangely, the Times — now, of course, the standard-bearer for the country’s best crosswords — was the last major American newspaper to print them, holding out until 1942. (The Times still refuses to include Sudoku.)
  • Here is Kaji, on the merits of Sudoku: “Please remember that Sudoku is not a mind-training or brain-training game. It’s not mathematics; it’s not educational. It is a worthless game. It is a time-killer…. In case that you are so involved in Sudoku that you are lacking reading time, or your wife is not making your lunch or dinner, or your husband is staying at home playing Sudoku and irritating you, then retire from Sudoku as quickly as possible and move on. Please get tired of Sudoku — and [instead] get involved in my other new puzzles.”
  • Shortz disagreed with that sentiment, calling puzzles of all types “excellent mental aerobics.”
  • Shortz receives 75-100 crossword submissions a week from puzzle-makers. How does he choose? He starts with his six basic rules of what makes for a good crossword:
  1. It must be symmetrical (i.e., if you spin it 180 degrees, it will look the same as it did before).
  2. Every square must be used twice.
  3. No 2-letter words.
  4. No repeated answers within the same puzzle.
  5. It has to be a real word. (For this one, Shortz laughed and said, “I had to include this one — believe it or not, we get a lot of submissions with completely made-up words.”)
  6. It should avoid “crosswordese” (e.g., “Esne,” a totally obscure 8th-century Anglo-Saxon bishop of Hereford, which often appears in crosswords because it uses common letters and begins and ends with “e”).
  • There’s an old maxim amongst puzzle-designers: “Every type of puzzle has a flaw.”  For instance, crosswords’ flaw, Shortz said, is the abundance of short, often obscure words. Double-crostics’ flaw is tedium: transporting the letters from the first set of blanks to the second.

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