WILL SHORTZ on 'WORDPLAY' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
June 8, 2006
In his documentary Wordplay, writer/director Patrick Creadon explores the world of competitive crossword puzzle solving. His film follows a select group of competitors as they make their way to the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and also features several interviews with well-known puzzle enthusiasts including Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, and the Indigo Girls. Although crosswords are generally a very solitary activity, the movie does a good job of capturing several dramatic moments, and manages to be both educational and entertaining.
In this interview, Will Shortz talks about his experience as New York Times crossword puzzle editor and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
MEDIA: How did writer/director Patrick Creadon first approach you for this film?
WILL: He called me a little over a year ago. It was like December '04 or January '05...And I said, "If you're going to do this, you have to come to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament." And I actually discouraged him at the start. There was another documentary film being made at the time, and the people had spent two years filming it. It sounded like it was going to be great. And so I told him, "There's already this other one being done." They wanted to sell it to cable TV. And Patrick said, "That's alright. We want to get in theaters with our film, it would be a little different." So I said, "Sure, go ahead." [jokes] I say yes to just about anything, you know. What do I care? And I never dreamed that they would be as successful as they've been.
Do you think the recent acceptance of academic competitions in mainstream movies can only help Wordplay?
Yeah. And of course, Wordplay is a lot more than that. The tournament is only half of the film. But yeah, there's this whole sub-subgenre of intellectual athletic events: Spellbound, Word Wars, Akeelah and the Bee. I love them all. I love Spellbound because of the kids. It's very hard to compete with that. I like Wordplay better than Word Wars because the characters in that are not so appealing, not so sympathetic. Akeelah and the Bee is fictional, of course, but I love that movie, too. I cried through half the movie, it was so joyful.
Has there ever been a crossword puzzle you were unable to finish?
Yeah. Well, first of all, it's not that hard to make a puzzle that is unfairly hard, you know. All you have to do is cross two obscure words and you're not going to get that crossing. So yeah, there have been a lot of puzzles made like that. I don't know if you're into Sudoku, at all? This new number logic puzzle? I'm crazy about that, too. And I have to tell you, there are some really hard Sudoku puzzles I haven't cracked yet. I haven't given up. I've got them lying around the house, I will get back to them!
As the puzzle editor for the New York Times, have you ever published a particular puzzle that was too difficult?
I can track things by a number of ways. First of all, the New York Times crossword is available online now, and there's an applet available so you can time yourself, and the times are posted. And sometimes on the Saturday puzzles (Saturday is the hardest of the week), maybe in the first hour, there'll only be a couple of dozen people who have finished it. And people say, "Yeah, that was a really tough one." That's a good sign of how hard it is. I can back up and say every Times crossword is test-solved by five people before it appears in print. So I have a pretty good idea about the difficulty of the puzzle, but then I'm giving it to five people to test, and they get back to me with their comments. And if the puzzle's really hard, I'll hear from them. If the puzzle is too hard and people couldn't do it, I wouldn't run it. But that's never happened before. I think I can gauge people's reactions to a puzzle. I think I'm pretty good at that. When I watch Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and they go to the audience lifeline, I'm pretty good at predicting the percentage of people who will answer it correctly in the audience.
Has anyone ever been so upset over a puzzle that they sent you threatening feedback?
Hardly ever happened, no. There was one guy who kept coming by the New York Times...And I don't even work at the Times, I work at home. He didn't realize that, so he kept coming and dropping off packages and leaving messages. And he was strange. I saved all his stuff just in case [anything] ever happened--I wanted there to be a printed record of it. Basically, puzzle people are nice. When I started at the Times, I wondered if I would have to get an unlisted phone number. Would people call me asking for help or complaining? And in my twelve and a half years at the Times, I may have gotten two or three unsolicited calls about the puzzle. People are respectful. Puzzlers are just nice people and they don't bother me.
What's the nicest correspondence you've ever received from a fan?
Well, I don't know about nicest, but one of the strangest...There was a lady on Long Island who called me like on a Tuesday and said that her mother had just died the day before. Her mother was a huge New York Times crossword solver. They were burying her on Thursday, and she wondered if it would be possible to get an advanced copy of the following Sunday's New York Times crossword to put in the casket and bury with her. So I thought about it and said okay. And the next day, we FedEx'ed her a copy of the following Sunday's magazine. And now I guess the mother is happy for eternity...That's strange, but it's strange in a nice way, that the crossword was such an important part of her life, that this is the one thing the daughter wanted buried with her mother.
Who wrote the championship puzzle seen in the film? (And decided to use the word Zolaesque?)
Well, it changes every year. That puzzle in the 2005 tournament was by Byron Walden. He's a professor of computer science (I think, something to do with computers) at Santa Clara University, and he is known for challenging puzzles, number one. That's why I asked him. And secondly, he's known for really intricate, clever, themeless diagrams with very few black squares, wide open white spaces. He probably started his puzzle with Zolaesque, which he thought was an interesting word. It actually is in the dictionary. It just means, literally, "in the style of Emile Zola"...Yeah, that was a killer word. [laughs]
Does competition at the tournament ever become vicious and cutthroat?
I have never seen that. We have dividers set between the contestants as you could see in the wide scenes to prevent wandering eyes. But honestly, I think I could take those away and they wouldn't be needed. You see in the film where two of the top contestants are trying to get 25 more points for one of their opponents because they feel he deserves them. That's the sort of spirit at the event. Why are you there? The grand prize is $4,000. That's nice, but it's not $100,000--it's not going to change your life. So you're doing it for yourself. If you win the tournament, you want to win because you deserve to win, so you shouldn't cheat anyone else.
What's your fastest time for solving one of these crossword puzzles?
I'm a pretty good solver, but I'm not like [the tournament finalists]. I think if I were in the tournament, I would fall in the middle somewhere. Among the public as a whole, I'm probably a genius, but in the context of these people, I'm average. And I kind of like that, actually.
What do you think of these competitors who can solve a whole puzzle in like two minutes?
Well, the top solvers have extraordinarily fast minds. Their minds just work faster than mine, and I'm just happy with that. I think I have a good mind. I have no problem with people being smarter than me. [laughs] And of course, they know so much. Anything that goes into their brains, it sticks there. They're a nice bunch of people to hang out with because they're interesting, they have flexible minds, they know a lot. It's just a good group to hang with.
The movie shows puzzles being created by hand. Are computers used, or is that frowned upon?
There are programs that can make crosswords, and there are some newsstand puzzle magazines that make crosswords that way, where you just press a button and the computer will spit out a puzzle and all the clues fully laid out on the page, and it can make an entire magazine in a few seconds. Those crosswords are not very good. There's no theme to them, obviously. The computer probably doesn't have the discrimination to know what's an interesting answer and a less interesting answer, what's obscure and not obscure. And, of course, a computer cannot write an original clue for an answer. Only a human can do that. There are lots of New York Times crossword contributors who use computers now in construction, but it's more as assistance, rather than making a whole puzzle. A computer will tell you possibilities for an answer. If you've got a third letter L and a fifth letter P in a six-letter answer, the computer can tell you all the possibilities in its database. It can even suggest corners for you...So a lot of people are using computer assistance, but it's only assistance. The computer's not making the puzzle for you, and there's still a lot of human involvement.