June 22, 2006

Crossword puzzle fans get their own movie

By Arthur Spiegelman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Every Sunday morning, a nice,
middle-aged man with a soothing voice drives listeners of a
radio program heard across the United States to wonder if they
are nuts or just stupid.

He is Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor of The New York
Times, a puzzle fanatic since about the age of 9, and the
holder of the only known Ph.D. in enigmalogy (the study of
puzzles). He is also "Puzzle Master" of National Public Radio's
Weekend Edition, in which he and host Liane Hansen conduct
deviously clever word games with listeners.

Now the 53-year-old Shortz, one of a select few to make a
living out of concocting crossword puzzles and word games, is
about to become a movie star thanks to a new documentary called
"Wordplay," which is built around him and a few others who have
made crossword puzzle solving their life's work.

The film, which opens nationally on Friday, centers on
Shortz and a tense little yearly contest he created, called the
American Crossword Puzzle tournament.

On NPR, Shortz drives his listeners to distraction with
old-fashioned word games because even he has not figured out
how to do a radio crossword.

Typically he will ask something like: "Think of a phrase of
the form blank and blank. The initials of the two words in the
blanks are R and F. Change the first letter of the second word
from an F to a V, and the two new words will be synonyms."

"What are they?" asks straight woman Hansen, and Shortz
answers, "Well, the phrase is rank and file, which becomes rank
and vile."


Then he and Hansen pepper a contestant with questions like,
"All right, Janice, every answer today is a familiar two-word
phrase with the initials W P, as in Word Play. For example, if
the clue were something that comes up on the Internet, you
would say Web page."

Soon the airwaves are full of phrases like wet paint, waxed
paper, Warsaw Pact, wall plug, whipping post, Winter Palace and
wolf pack.

"More people know me from the radio show than from the
Times," Shortz said the other day in a phone interview for the
film, which should make him even better known.

"We appear on 600 stations with an audience of 2 1/2
million. At the Times I edit the puzzles but usually don't
write them. On NPR I write them."

His puzzles at the Times are famous for their clever
pop-culture references, sly clues and gradual increase in
difficulty designed to make you feel like a superhero if you
can get the Saturday one done in pen in two minutes or under.

"It is not hard to make a puzzle hard -- all you have to do
is use two obscure words. The challenge is to make it fair so
that it can be solved. I think the Times puzzle is gold
standard of puzzles," he said.

One of the most famous crosswords ever published in the
paper is closely examined in the film. It is a puzzle that
appeared the day before the 1996 presidential election and
asked the question "lead story in tomorrow's newspaper?"

The puzzle, created by Jeremiah Farrell, had two correct
answers "Bob Dole Elected" and "Clinton Elected" and hung on a
clue to another word that also could go two ways -- bat or cat
for black Halloween animal.

Shortz lives, eats and breathes puzzles except for a few
hours a day when for fun -- yes fun -- he plays table tennis.
"For 2 1/2 to 3 hours a day I am oblivious to everything. It's

It is certainly better than trying to figure out a Shortz
puzzle, like say this new one: "Think of a certain country in
the world. Change its first letter to name a well-known 20th
century world leader. Or change its third letter to name
another well-known 20th century world leader."