The Wordsmith Cometh

For Will Shortz, creating and solving puzzles – mostly crosswords – has been the driving force of his life. The crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times for the last 15 years, Shortz began writing puzzles while still in grade school, sold his first in his early teens, and then went on to Indiana University to create his own major in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, where he was the first – and so far only student in the nation – to have earned a degree in the field.

Shortz is also the founder and host of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which this year fielded more than 700 contestants aged 13-89 who spent a weekend doing what most of us only consider a passing hobby. He was featured in last year’s documentary film “Wordplay,” and has served as the puzzle master on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” since the program began in 1987.

Like nearly all of his work, Shortz’s appearance at UCSB on Sunday afternoon will be an interactive one. After a short presentation on how puzzles are constructed, what makes a good crossword, the hobby’s history and his personal favorites, Shortz will conduct audience participation games, including “Beat the Champ,” a word game made popular on NPR.

Shortz discussed the crossword genre over the telephone from his home office in New York earlier this week.

Q. Why do people love to do puzzles, especially crosswords? Is it the challenge?

A. Crosswords have a pattern of light squares to be filled in, and as human beings we have a natural compulsion to fill empty spaces. There’s also the love of language, and other areas that we have studied. Crosswords cross almost every area of life, from classical fields of knowledge to TV, movies, rock & roll and sports. So they are a way to take a huge body of knowledge and turn it into a game. And there’s the appeal of seeing a challenge through from the very beginning to the end. There are very few opportunities in life like that – we’re faced with all sorts of problems every day, but we get thrown into the middle of them and we just carry them through to the next point where we can bail out and move on. So it’s very satisfying to complete a puzzle. It gives you a feeling of control. I think that’s why it appeals to a very broad range of people. Research has shown that ten percent of Americans have worked on a crossword puzzle in the last month, more than any other pastime, including video games. That’s encouraging.

Puzzle constructors often use reference materials, even the Internet, to create the crosswords. How do you feel about people also using books, or friends, or looking things up online to solve them?

My philosophy is very simple: It’s your puzzle, solve it anyway you like. If you get stuck, why not get some help? It may help you learn something. But everybody has his own rules. Some people won’t ever look anything up. Others will go there only if they get stuck. And there are those who go online for everything.

When was the last time you made a mistake in a crossword puzzle in The New York Times?

Thankfully, there have been almost none that I know of in the last year. There are four daily blogs on the Times crosswords, so I find out about it quickly when I have one. But here’s the biggest one from last year: the clue was “Back-up singers in a 1960s R&B group.” The answer was “The MGs.” Unfortunately, Booker T. & the MGs were an instrumental band. That just slipped under the radar. Our puzzles are vetted by at least five people before they’re printed, and nobody else caught it either.

(Will Shortz will appear this Sunday (May 6) at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Tickets are $35 for general public, $15 for students. For more info call 893-3535.)