The most puzzling piece of personal history New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz shared with the audience packed into Haverford College’s Robert Marshall Auditorium on Friday night may not have been his favorite word (ucalegon: a neighbor whose house is on fire) or the average time it takes him to complete a newspaper Jumble (approximately six seconds), but instead his possession of an unused law degree from the University of Virginia.
“Why a law degree?” Shortz asked, smiling. “I didn’t think a career in puzzles was possible. I thought [I would be heading into] a life of poverty, sitting in an attic somewhere and making puzzles for $10.”
Instead, Shortz has taken the puzzle world by storm, founding the American Crossword Tournament and the World Puzzle Championship, serving as the historian of the National Puzzler’s League, authoring more than 100 books and hosting a segment on NPR’s Sunday Edition as the Puzzle Master since 1987. It’s difficult to imagine Shortz could have dreamed up a better resume when he designed his own major at Indiana University, becoming the only person in the world to major in enigmatology — the study of puzzles. His thesis? “History of American Word Puzzles Before 1960,” which was later published in the Journal of Linguistics.
Opening up his lecture with brief vignettes of his favorite crosswords published thus far, Shortz surprised a delighted audience by tipping his hat to Swarthmore student Anna Shechtman ’12, who has constructed two puzzles for The New York Times while at Swarthmore. Shechtman is part of a select group: since assuming the position of editor in 1993, Shortz has published manuscripts constructed by only 38 teen puzzlers. Although this is an impressive number considering only four teens were published prior to his reign, it nonetheless emphasizes the exclusivity of the crossword club.
Joining Shechtman in the ranks of teen publishers is Milo Beckman, who published the same year that he enrolled at Harvard at the age of 15, and Alex Vratsanos, whose goal to be published before graduating high school came true when his puzzle appeared in The New York Times on graduation day. Additionally, Shechtman is only the second female crossword constructor under twenty published in The Times.
“I was caught completely off guard when he introduced me and my puzzles,” Shechtman said, speaking about Shortz’s introduction. “I was blushing, it was so flattering.”
While both Shortz and Shechtman identify as “puzzleheads,” their relative time in the industry is drastically different, even when accounting for Shortz’s age. Shortz’s immersion in the puzzle world began early in childhood; he began designing crosswords between the ages of eight and nine, and had his first published when he was 14. By 16, he was a regular contributor to a popular puzzle magazine of the time. Shechtman didn’t become involved in constructing puzzles until high school. Incidentally, the documentary “Wordplay,” focused on Shortz’s life and career, inspired Shechtman to start constructing. “I had an earnest moment of identification with the ‘word nerds’ in the movie, who made [the crosswords] an integral part of their lifestyle,” Shechtman said.
The documentary taught her the basic rules of the trade: the diagram must be symmetrical, there must be no unchecked squares or two-letter words, and all words must be real, the latter being a classic and common rookie mistake, according to Shortz. In addition to the basic formal rules, when selecting manuscripts for The New York Times, Shortz looks for high quality vocabulary that is “fresh, lively and colorful” and an interesting and fresh theme, if the puzzle has one. Both Shortz and Shechtman share an aversion to “crosswordees,” those words repeated time and time again in the papers due to their configuration of unlikely letters.
The theme of Shechtman’s first puzzle, which was originally published in The Times in May 2010, was “Grade Inflation,” a tribute of its own to Swarthmore College. “[The puzzle] was initially going to be … for the Swarthmore newspaper. Swarthmore prides itself on its lack of grade inflation. The mantra of ego-bruised Swarthmore students is ‘anywhere else it would have been an A,’” Shechtman said in a May 25, 2010 interview with Jim Horne for The New York Times crossword blog “Wordplay.” “I thought that turning the B’s of a puzzle into A’s (à la grade inflation) was puzzle-worthy, so I racked my brain for words that still made sense with A’s in the place of B’s … I really like this puzzle, especially because the theme resonates so strongly with me and what I love about my school. It’s challenging; professors have high expectations — much like Mr. Shortz at The Times.”
A crossword constructor for The Phoenix for the past three years, Shechtman has since retired from the paper, but continues to construct on her own. Currently in the works are two themeless puzzles, which she has found to be much more difficult due to the openness of the diagrams, that she plans to submit to The New York Times. Additionally, her recent submission to The Onion for a “20 Under 30” crossword series elicited a long-term job offer from its editor. However, unlike Shortz, Shechtman does not necessarily dream of a career in puzzles.
“I want to keep submitting throughout my lifetime,” Shechtman said. “That’s the interesting thing about puzzles … there’s no age limit, [and] you improve as you get older. [However, crosswords] will probably be a second pleasure to my career. It’s a super isolating activity, even more so than reading … you’re entirely in the depths of your own mind.”
Taking eight to 10 hours to complete a themed puzzle — essentially, an entire day’s work — is indeed a lot of time to spend in one’s head. While the pay is not the $10 per-puzzle Shortz predicted while in law school, it still isn’t much. Weekday puzzle writers for The Times receive $200 per puzzle; Saturday puzzles bring in $1,000.
Seeing Shortz in person after communicating via e-mail was “thrilling,” Shechtman said. “When I first submitted my puzzles [in the mail], I got an email back from Shortz himself … He’s definitely become a hero in my mind … he’s so warm. In the e-mails, even when he was stern, he was very sympathetic.”
Shortz won over the audience on Friday not only with his demonstrable knowledge of crossword history, but his own accounts of a lifetime immersion in crossword culture. Among his anecdotes was a description of The New York Times’s reluctant rise to the top of the crossword puzzle world: it was one of the last newspapers in the US to adopt the phenomenon, reversing its stance taken in an editorial which decried crosswords as a “childish pastime” only after the editor tired of buying The Herald-Tribune for the daily puzzle. In sharing favorite anagrams (astronomers — no more stars — moon starer) and other trivial tidbits (the crosswordee “esne” refers to an Anglo-Saxon slave), Shortz demonstrated both his passion and knowledge of all things wordy.
Peppered at the end of his lecture with questions from an adoring auditorium, it was clear Shortz wanted to morph from crossword king into impromptu game show host and get the wordplay going. Pitting sides of the auditorium against each other in challenges ranging from “State Capitals” to “Name that Veggie” to “Beat the Champ,” Shortz had everyone giggling, guessing and grinning over the verbal puzzles.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, or what sort of lecture a crossword editor would give,” Stuart Russell ’14, a one-round “champ” in the wordplay challenges, said. “Even though it wasn’t a lecture in the traditional sense, it was still a really fun event.”