By: Lynn Feigenbaum
Will Shortz, a 41-year-old Baby Boomer ‘upstart,’ takes over from venerable forebears as New York Times puzzle editor sp.
THE CLUE TO 61 across was “Virginia willow,” to 3 down “The first Mrs. Arrowsmith” the day that the New York Times ran its astonishing announcement: Will Shortz, former editor of Games magazine, would become the newspaper’s next puzzle editor.
The irony is that with Shortz as editor, clues such as those may become extinct. And the country’s “crossword puzzle of record,” as one expert describes it, could offer some lively new challenges.
This has been a news-making year in puzzledom. First, two Times puzzle greats ? Will Weng and Eugene Mal-eska ? died within months of each other. Then the Times picked Shortz as its new puzzle editor.
That’s big news, indeed, because Shortz is probably the Bill Clinton of the crossword puzzle world ? a 41-year-old Baby Boomer “upstart” taking over from venerable forebears.
Shortz has exciting promises for his electorate. At the top of the list: fewer obscure clues ? such as, maybe, “Virginia willow” (itea) and “the first Mrs. Arrowsmith” (Leora).
Also on his agenda: more modern language and pop culture, more puns and clues that test alertness and cleverness. There could be special instructions for tricky puzzles, maybe even a puzzle constructed by a computer.
The Shortz touch already was in evidence Nov. 21, when he made his official debut. It wasn’t just that you needed crayons or colored pens to do the lead puzzle, “Spectral Analysis.” The clues and answers had changed. Opera and the classics were there, but so were Ren & Stimpy and the Indigo Girls, plus brand names such as Certs and MasterCard.
The down-page puzzle, “Split Ends,” was by Shortz and ? breaking another Times tradition ? had special instructions.
But Shortz has spoken of evolution rather than revolution and vowed that he won’t shake up the esteemed puzzle. “I hope to modernize it,” he said, “while maintaining the intellectual substance and tradition of the paper.”
Shortz might sound like the old Times but it’s obvious that he fits right in with other changes that have brightened and modernized the Times Magazine.
If Shortz’ name is familiar, it’s because you’ve heard the “puzzlemaster” on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday. Or you’ve been a fan of Games, where Shortz has been an editor since 1978 during several rocky changes of ownership.
But his credentials go beyond that: holder of the world’s only college degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, from Indiana University; law degree from the University of Virginia; founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which will hold its 17th annual competition next year; crossword coach, editor, constructor, historian, booster, globetrotter and collector, with 15 puzzle books to his credit.
Then, there is his age. Like some other top constructors, as puzzlemakers call themselves, Shortz was barely past puberty when his puzzles began appearing in print. He was 14 when he sold his first one and a regular contributor to Dell puzzle magazines by age 16.
At 41, he is two decades younger than predecessors Weng and Maleska when they were annointed Times puzzle editors. Also, unlike Weng (a former Times copy desk chief) or Maleska (a retired educator), he is not coming into crossword puzzles as a second career.
Shortz has lived and breathed puzzles most of his life.
“In eighth grade, I wrote a paper saying I wanted to be a professional puzzlemaker,” he said, not sure whether that was “a joke or a dream.” Neither, it turns out.
At law school, he was the only one in his class who never interviewed with a law firm. He remembered being summoned by a concerned placement counselor, who perked up when he told her that he already had a job.
And he recalled the look on her face when she heard where the job was . . . at a crossword puzzle magazine.
Fifteen years later, he met a law school graduate by the name of Bill Clinton. It was summer 1992, between the Democratic National Convention and the start of serious fall campaigning. A former Games publisher was
a Clinton aide, and when the staff learned that the candidate sometimes did two or three puzzles a day, they decided to present him with a specially made crossword puzzle.
Even Shortz was impressed by the candidate’s puzzling prowess. Clinton timed himself with a stop watch, continuing to fill in the squares during an urgent phone conversation. He did the crossword puzzle perfectly in six minutes, 54 seconds.
To puzzlers like me, having Shortz take over “The Puzzle” is exciting news. Exciting and scary. I’ve been a fan since I was old enough to clutch a pencil. I love the clever themes, step-quotes and occasional gimmicks.
What will he do to the Times crossword puzzle?
“It will be a lot more fun,” puzzlemaker Trip Payne said.
It’ll have “cleverer clues, more solvable puzzles,” predicted Peter Gordon, an associate editor at Games. And, he added, there will be a lot more “head slapping” going on.
Head slapping is the “aha!” of solving a puzzle without a pile of reference books, explained another leading puzzlemaker Merl Reagle. And it’s the key to what makes the Shortz appointment a boon to the New Wave crossword puzzle movement.
I first heard of the New Wave (AKA the New School or New Mainstream) in 1986, when I made my only foray into the world of crossword puzzle competition. The U.S. Open Crossword Championship was at New York University and, to my surprise, a few participants sported T-shirts poking fun at the sacred Times puzzle.
What they really were maligning was crosswordese ? obscure geographical clues, alternate spellings that even Webster wouldn’t recognize and references to authors who had been out of print for 60 years.
Shortz distances himself from anything radical, but he too wants to stamp out the “Burmese grasses,” “Bolivian rivers” and “towns in Mongolia with a population under 100” that gridlock some puzzles.
The goal of the New Wave was to return puzzles to conversational (mainstream) English ? a trend that dates to the Times’ first puzzle editor, Margaret Farrar.
She loosened up crosswording by breaking away from dictionary-only definitions and introducing multiple-word entries and word fragments (the clue for “ata” could be “??? glance” instead of “tribe in East India”).
What matters to the new generation of puzzlemakers is that crossword puzzles be interesting, enjoyable, witty and humorous. Or, as Reagle said, “a cross between Jeopardy and Letterman’s Top Ten.”
Humor and enjoyment had much to do with how Shortz got selected for his new job.
Maleska died in August, just three months after the retired Weng. (Farrar died in 1984). The Times needed a new puzzle maven.
As Times Magazine editor Jack Ro-senthal said, managers were down to four “compellingly able” candidates. So Rosenthal assigned a Herculean task: Give me a puzzle that will amuse me.
Rosenthal not only does puzzles when he has time ? he said he is the only Times Magazine editor who has been a constructor. In the 1970s, when he was a reporter in the Times’ Washington bureau, he was determined to craft a puzzle, one without those “stupid clues.”
He did, and his puzzle (it had a Spiro Agnew theme) was accepted by Weng. But, to Rosenthal’s displeasure, the published puzzle had been changed and had words such as “aam,” an ancient Dutch measure, in place of his word “ram.”
Weng’s explanation: What else are people going to do with the crossword puzzle dictionary that they got for Christmas?
Now, two decades later, Rosenthal was looking for a puzzle that would amuse him. All four candidates submitted humorous puzzles but, he said, “I had the most fun with Will’s” ? a clever riddle with a punny answer.
Throw in Shortz’ other qualifications and ideas plus the fact that he had met Farrar (he “crosses the generations,” Rosenthal said), and Shortz had a new job as the Times’ fourth puzzle editor since 1942, editing both the daily and weekend puzzles, which
are distributed to other newspapers through the New York Times News Service.
He began his new job in plenty of time to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the crossword puzzle Dec. 21. Shortz already has made two changes to attract top constructors: He increased the payment per puzzle and added their bylines to the daily puzzles.
Working from his new home in Pleasantville, N.Y., Shortz will commute into the Big Apple once a week.
He’s had at least one TV appearance so far ? on Conan O’Brien’s Late Night talk show on NBC. It was not a pleasant experience for Shortz, who, for all his zany sense of puzzle humor, took umbrage when O’Brien poked fun at his designer crossword puzzle tie.
Shortz may need to brace himself for the occasional cross word. Most Times puzzlers probably will love his brand of puzzling, but some traditionalists may balk at even the slightest change.
R. Wayne Schmittberger, the new editor of Games, is confident that his former colleague can tailor the puzzle to fit the audience. The Times crossword puzzle under Shortz will be distinct, he said, but “still pleasing” to its loyal followers.
? (Puzzlemaniac Feigenbaum is public editor at the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, Norfolk. Her dubious honors include ranking 203rd of 250 contestants at the 1986 U.S. Open Crossword Championship and having her sole crossword puzzle creation rejected twice by the New York Times Magazine.) [ID]
? (Will Shortz, puzzle editor, New York Times) [Photo]
? (The first puzzle page under Shortz’ editorship was in the Nov. 21 issue
of the Times Magazine.) [Photo and Caption]