One of the films shown at the TriBeCa Film Festival is called “Word Play.” Its subject has one of the most unique jobs in New York, and he is also the subject of this week's “One On 1” interview with NY1’s Budd Mishkin.
This man's work has an almost visceral effect on the everyday lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, bringing enjoyment and exasperation.
“The commonest response I get is, ÎI have a love/hate relationship with you. Love the puzzle, but you drive me crazy,’” he says.
The puzzle is the New York Times crossword puzzle. From the quiet of his home in Westchester, Will Shortz edits the puzzle, as he's done since 1993.
He's also heard across the country every Sunday morning as the puzzle master on National Public Radio. And in the past year, he's put out 20 books on the latest puzzle craze, sudoku.
“A friend of mine was in Hanoi, Vietnam, and he was at a bookstore and he asked the book seller if he had any books on sudoku, and the guy said, ÎWill Shortz?’” he says.
But it's the Times puzzle that takes the most work, and elicits the most emotional reaction. First of all, he doesn't create the puzzles, he edits them. So he gets submissions. Lots of them.
How many new ones a week?
“Sixty to 75. it's overwhelming the amount of mail I get,” he says.
It’s a Times tradition that the puzzle gets harder as the week progresses. Mondays? Somewhat easy. Fridays and Saturdays? Good luck.
Shortz has to keep that in mind as he spends his days surrounded by his books and computer, checking on thousands of clues.
Some puzzle submissions he likes.
"He has lively vocabulary like Îthree score, on the ropes, out of print, sports page,’" he says of one.
Some he doesn't.
“We have re-expel. My rule is it has to be in the dictionary,” he says. “And that's a terrible word. You expel somebody. How often do you re-expel somebody?”
“You'll almost never find Îan Andean town,’ a Îriver of Romania,’ anything like that,” Shortz continues. “If you look through the 70, 76, 78 words in the crossword you will know all but one or two of them, and probably all of them. That's my goal. But the difficulty will come in by the deception, the trickery, the vagueness of the clues, whatever - all my tools that I use to make puzzles hard.”
Those who do the Times crossword puzzle tend to be passionate about it, myself included. So here was my chance to ask The Man a question that had bugged me for years. Arlo Guthrie is a great musician, but he's seemingly in the puzzle all the time. Why?
“It’s four letters, it's short, it starts and ends with vowels, and we as crossword people, we need a lot of short words starting and ending with vowels,” he says.
There's no doubt that there's some cachet in getting your name in the Times crossword puzzle.
“Sometimes I will get letters from kind of mid-level celebrities, people who are sort of known but not really, and asking me to put their names in the crossword. I just throw those away,” he says.
But there's nothing mid-level about the writer of one letter which Shortz received on his 50th birthday in 2002. President Bill Clinton wrote: "Keep the crosswords coming. Even when I can't finish them, they’re the only part of the Times that guarantees good feeling."
It's his home and his workplace, but Will Shortz has also created a museum of puzzles in his house. There's a bookcase with all sorts of artifacts.
“Here is the world's first crossword puzzle. It appeared in the Sunday supplement to the New York World on December 21, 1913, called ÎFun,’" he says.
And upstairs in his office, Shortz has more than 20,000 puzzle books and magazines dating back to 1545.
Despite the influence Shortz has on the lives of puzzle buffs, he leads a relatively anonymous existence. Until now. A new documentary called “Word Play,” about Shortz and the world of puzzles, was just shown at the TriBeCa Film Festival and opens nationwide in June.
The genesis of a puzzle master is perhaps as enigmatic as the works he creates. Before Shortz had puzzlers chomping at the bit for his clues, he grew up on a horse farm in Indiana.
He says he got his love of words from his mother, who was a writer. His love of puzzles from a puzzle inventor named Sam Lloyd.
And there was an early sign of a creative mind.
“I won $2,000 for naming a gum in 1967,” he says.
The name of the gum was Quint Mint, because it had five different flavors.
That independent streak further showed itself at Indiana University, where he took advantage of the school's individualized major program and created a major in enigmatology, an old word for the study of riddles, and broadened it to puzzles.
"I went to the board that oversees this program and said what I wanted to do,” he says. “You'd think they'd look askance at me, but a guy my same year majored in ventriloquism, so I think puzzles are at least as academic as that."
Shortz graduated and then moved on to the University of Virginia Law School. He says even after he finished law school, he knew his career would be in puzzles.
“I ever even took the Bar Exam, much to my parents' dismay," he says.
Shortz then spent 15 years as editor of Games Magazine. He edited many crossword books. He created the Sunday morning tradition of the puzzle on NPR in 1987.
But Shortz describes his first days at the Times in 1993 as "overwhelming."
"I was such a change from my predecessor. I was 36 years younger than him, and I had a different style and a different philosophy of puzzles from him,” he says. “A lot of people loved me from the start, and lot of people hated me right at the start. My first puzzles at the Times were a little too easy, and people said, I heard constantly that, ÎYou're dumbing the thing down.’ So I thought, ÎWell, I'll show you what hard is.’ So for the next month or so I made the puzzles really hard, and then I started getting letters all the other way saying, ÎWhat are you doing? I can't solve your puzzles.’”
It seems like a life lived in solitude. Shortz lives alone, he works alone. But he says he's on the phone and e-mailing crossword puzzle creators and testers all day.
And one of his greatest joys comes from the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, a weekend competition he created in 1978.
“It’s always been my goal to push the boundaries of puzzles, do new things, and to bring people together,” he says.
Shortz does have one other passion. He plays ping pong 5-6 nights a week.
But he doesn't have a table in the house. That would get in the way of the puzzles.
“It's crazy. I'll spend all day at work on puzzles, and then settle back in bed at night and maybe knock off somebody else’s puzzle before I go to sleep,” he says. “I always feel challenged. I never get bored with the job, and I do like the feeling I get that I'm entertaining people and enriching their lives.“
- Budd Mishkin