Wednesday, August 26, 2009


It's the birthday of the world's only academically accredited enigmatologist, Will Shortz, (books by this author) born on an Arabian horse farm in Crawfordsville, Indiana (1952). He's the current crossword editor of The New York Times, the puzzle master of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, and the author or editor of dozens of books.

Shortz sold his first puzzle to a magazine when he was 14 years old, and within a couple years, he was a regular contributor to puzzle publications. In college, he designed his own degree program in enigmatology, which he describes: "Literally, it's the study of riddles, but at Indiana I defined it as the study of puzzles." He drew himself up an undergraduate curriculum of classes in English, math, philosophy, journalism, and linguistics, and wrote a thesis on the history of American word puzzles before 1860. He went to law school, thinking he'd work for 10 years and earn a bunch of money so that he could pursue his avocation of puzzlemaking.

But after graduating from law school, he skipped out on taking the bar exam and went straight into enigmatology, earning a living by creating puzzles for publications like Penny Press and Games magazines. In 1993, he became the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times, only the fourth person to hold that position in the newspaper's history. He has made some changes to the Times puzzle page in his 16 years of editorship: The crossword puzzles now have constructor bylines (before the contributors weren't acknowledged), and the puzzles contain more references to contemporary pop culture (stuff like rock and roll and what's on television). Puzzles also now have more tricks and ambiguities, he said. He has also "increased the slope of difficult further," as he claims, between the daily puzzles so that Mondays are slightly easier than before he took over — while Friday and Saturday crosswords are even harder than they used to be. He said that the idea is "to have something for everyone, both beginners and veterans."

His all-time favorite crossword clue is "It might turn into a different story," with the answer "SPIRALSTAIRCASE."

His favorite crossword puzzle is the one that was printed on Election Day 1996, designed by Jeremiah Farrell. The puzzle had two different correct solutions with the same set of clues. The clue whose answer formed one of the middle rows across read, "Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper." The answer seemed to be CLINTON ELECTED, but Jeremiah Farrell had carefully constructed ambiguity in all of the crossing clues, so that the answer to that middle-across clue could also be "BOB DOLE ELECTED." Either answer worked perfectly in the puzzle.

The first downward crossing clue, for instance, was "Black Halloween animal." Either "bat" or "cat" would be correct, with the C for the start of CLINTON or the B for the start of BOB DOLE. Will Shortz later said, "It was the most amazing crossword I've ever seen. As soon as it appeared, my telephone started ringing. Most people said, "How dare you presume that Clinton will win!" And the people who filled in BOB DOLE thought we'd made a whopper of a mistake!"

More than 30 years ago (in 1978), Shortz founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an event he still directs. Will Shortz and the Tournament were the subjects of a 2006 documentary by Patrick Creadon, called Wordplay. The film also featured a string of prominent puzzle-solvers, like Bill Clinton, Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, and the Indigo Girls.

When asked why people are so drawn to puzzles, Shortz said, "We're faced with puzzles every day in life. What's the fastest way to run some errands? What's the lowest price we can get on home repair? Most problems we're faced with, we just do the best we can — we muddle through. We never know if it's the best solution or not. With a human-made puzzle, when you answer the challenge, you know you have a perfect solution. It's satisfying."

Here are a couple of the many brain-teasers that Will Shortz has come up with:

1) What part of the body can be spelled by rearranging the letters of the word "ELATION"?
2) Change one letter of the word SHUFFLE to make something to eat.

1) Answer: Toenail

2) Answer: Soufflé

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