Will Shortz, puzzle editor for the New York Times, is about to speak here at Idea Festival 2008. He's the puzzle master for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, and the only person to hold a degree in Enigmatology… the study of puzzles. The event description promises a "rollicking journey into the world of puzzles and the minds that design and solve them."
While we are waiting, I am Michael Schnuerle, new to blogging at the Idea Festival. This is my first post, and I'll have two more, one on Friday, one on Saturday. They will cover the BIG: Designs on the Future City and Serious Play events. Normally I run the local site www.metromapper.org.
I've always had an interest in puzzles since I was a child. I remember once when I was 6 my dad giving me a little physics problem, scrawled on scrap paper with a pencil. It had to do with a 6 ton truck crashing head-first into a 2 ton car at 30 miles per hour. The question was how fast the car had to be moving so the two vehicles would come to a dead stop. I think to his surprise, I blurted out 90 mph without really knowing how I got that answer. But a love of puzzles was born.
Will Shortz has a long history with puzzles, which started when he was very young. I hope he delves into all kinds of puzzles and gives us a few mind teasers during his speech.
1:05pm - Will takes the stage. He looks like he's going to cover a lot of topics: crosswords, sudoku, and audience participation word games!
1:06 - He's talking about some of his all time favorite crosswords and puzzles.
1:08 - Most crosswords have a theme, and Christmas and April Fool's Day are the most popular holiday puzzle themes.
1:09 - Most popular NYT crossword was a marriage proposal in the puzzle itself. A guy thought he'd like to propose to his girlfriend through a NYT puzzle, and Will Shortz first said no, but then thought it might be really great. It had clues like "A Modest Proposal" by Johnathon Swift, the song "This Diamond Ring", and the Paula Abdul song "Will You Marry Me." It also included both of their names, and the answer of "yes" for the clue "Will you marry me?" Bill, the proposer slept 15 minutes the night before, went to brunch with his girlfriend Emily, and they got the Times. He sat across a cafe table from Emily, and while she goes straight to the crossword, Bill watches slyly. She says, huh, that's funny, yuur name and my name is in the puzzle. Eventually she solves it and and says yes when he asks her. They've sent him a thank you note every year since.
1:14 - One of the most popular puzzles had the clue "Headline in tomorrows paper" with 2 possible answers: "clinton elected" or "Bob Dole elected." Two word options were possible for each clue for the first 7 letters that made up the answer. He got lots of calls, some saying he jumped the gun for Clinton, or got it wrong with Dole.
1:15 - Going over some crossword rules:
1) Grid has to be symetrical 180 degrees (since visual appeal). This is an independent crossword development in every country.
2) no unchecked letters
3) no 2 letter words!
4) no repeated words
5) has to be a real word or phrase, no misspellings.
He also looks at the quality of submitted puzzles: Fresh theme, good vocabulary, minimum of obscurity.
1:19 - History. In fact, crosswords are just a 20th century invention, from 1913. New York World newspaper editor Author Win created a word cross. The next day it was called "Can you fill in the cross words," then "cross words" after that, and the name stuck.
In 1924 Simon and Schuster are starting a book publishing company, and their aunt suggested crosswords. They used "Plaza Publishing" instead of Simon & Schuster, since they didn't want their first book to be a crossword book. It was wildly popular and sold over 400,000 books in one year.
1:23 - Lots of Fads in 1920's, but crosswords stayed. The Times was the last major city newspaper to start printing them. Will Shortz is only the 4th editor since then and he started in 1993
1:24 - He asks "what do i do?" Reviews 75-100 submissions a week. Standards in quality have risen a lot since 1993. Monday is the easiest, and they increase in difficulty through Friday and Saturday. He edits the puzzle, editting more than half of them for accuracy, difficulty, or freshness. He typesets at Mac at home, sends off to 3 test solvers and fact checkers, and then it's converted to electronic form online. Now, there is a fifth checker from the online forums, who gets a PDF to examine before it hits print..
There are very few errors in the NYT crossword puzzle. The one that generated the most mail ever, was in 1990. The clue had Rupp Arena as the answer to the University of Louisville stadium. Will is from Indiana, and thought he knew this clue, so didn't fully check it out. He did run a Google search, and since there were 100Ks hits, he went ahead with it. But sometimes but UofL plays at Rupp Arena...
1:29 Q&A time
How far ahead do you work - 1 week ahead. up to 4 weeks.
Famous solvers - Bill Clinton. Went to his hotel room and asked how many he did. 3-5 a day, and very difficult ones. While Will is in Bill's hotel, Bill times himself with awatch, and he solves it in 6 min 54 secs, some of which is on the phone. It was a Wednesday puzzle.
Favorite kind of puzzle - sudoku, ken ken puzzle grid numbers (arithmetic). Cryptic in the british style.
4 letter word for salad horsell = bean.
How to get better. 1) start with easy monday. 2) fill in what you know for sure 3) look at unusual letters in the crossings 4) put puzzle aside, come back, if you are stuck.
He edits all puzzles, and the novelty puzzles.
New words come in sometimes, like podcast. Palin used to refer to Michael Palin from Monty Python, but now the new Alaskan Governor might get more crossword time.
Sudoku - should be solve without guesses. Now written automatically by computer puzzle making programs, which can rate for difficulty, and knows every possible way to solve.
Has anyone been offended if their crossword is published on Monday? Monday is actually the hardest to make- it has to be clever but easy.
Color crosswords? In the Sunday paper on November 1993 - the solution was in color, "roygbiv" was a clue across the middle, and each of those colors appeared twice. For syndication, it has to be in black and white.
Two fans here stand up, showing off their crossword shirts!
1:40 - Time for a Puzzle for today's audience.
Game: guess the word or phrase that starts with K and ends with Y
Answers: keg party, kennedy, kansas city, kill roy, kill joy, keesey, kenn state university, king henry, kirstie alley, kevin spacey, kerry, kidney, kleptocracy - govt by thieves, know nothing party, killing me solftly, kinetic energy
1:42 Beat the Champ - invented by Will
2 teams, one person from each side starts off standing.
The right person becomes the champ
2 from other team get a try to beat the champ.
Consecutive correct answers add points that go up in squares: 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, etc
Cats and Cards are the 2 teams.
Game: Name the one possible thing in the same category that comes between the 2 given words alphabetically.
Score: Team, Round Points / Total Point
thursday tuesday wednesday - cats 1/1
earth jupiter mars - cats 4/5
cleveland clinton colidge - 9/14
africa antartica asia - cards 1/1 sheila berman!
comet cupid dancer - cats 1/15
bashful doc dopey - cats 4/19
neptunium nickel niobium - cats 9/28
eclesiastes ester exodus - cards 1/2
sagitarius scorpio cats - 1/29
chemistry economics literature - X
flush four of a kind full house - cards 1/3
ontario prince edward island quebec - cats 1/30
Game: Tom Swifties. Provide the adverb that starts with the letter given, that completes the pun.
Absolutely i'm switching from satelite to xm, seriously - example
For the good old games of card games before bridge, whistfully - X
I love Sampras, I love Sampras, repeatedly - cards 1/4
The 25th letters are the initials of yin and yang, wisely - cats 1/31
Well my friend look to rub the magic lamp, genially - cards 1/5
Give each person a bowl of motza ball soup and kvelte fish, judiciously - cats 2/33
Cats win by a landslide. Yeah!
1:59 Event is over, signing books
Great presentation and speech, very interesting, and Will Shortz did give out some fun word puzzles for the crowd. Thanks and see you all tomorrow.