The New York Times Crosswords

New York Times crosswordThis is about crossword puzzles and people who do them.

Maybe you hate crosswords but do them anyway. Might be,  you don’t even fit the crosswords profile. You’d be lucky.

Still, you’d be voluntarily depriving yourself of the vicarious companionship of crossword-fan celebrities like Bill Clinton, Ken Burns and Jon Stewart.

Maybe you don’t care for a little adult language. This whole article may not be your cup of tea. Disclaimer: it’s about crosswords, fergawdsakes. Listen, there are actually some good articles on this site, or, you could just change the channel.

While we’re waiting for the room to clear, you two folks could move up here to the front row seats, and I won’t have to shout.

On September 1, PBS ran “Wordplay”, an “Independent Lens” TV special on crossword addicts – and the New York Times crossword puzzle in particular. We met the legendary Will Shortz, New York Times Crossword Editor, and Merl Reagle, one of the most distinguished of many notable crossword “constructors”.

If these names mean nothing to you, just keep doing those puzzles. You will come to know them, and revile them with gusto. Their names are generally known only within the crossword community. Therein, they are the gods and goblins who keep the community addictions supplied.

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Will Shortz mentioned a “35 year” predecessor at the New York Times Crossword desk, but I didn’t catch mention of the gentleman’s name. I would like to correct that grave oversight now: that man was Eugene T. Maleska. According to Wikipedia, Maleska held the Crossword Editorship post from 1977 to 1993. You, being of sound mind and body, would assume the “35 year” figure would logically refer to the term of tenure, which, mathematically, it can not. Shortz, having in 1993 assumed the most prestigious crossword editorship in the world, obviously meant that his predecessor began this post 35 years ago.

You would have to be a crossword fan to understand that such misrepresentations are not only an acceptably quirky mindset, but a high recommendation for this kind of job.

So it happened that I was first exposed to a Maleska puzzle in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. Or, perhaps we could say, it was inflicted upon me.

I started out in the ordinary way. They say it always begins with something innocent, like a San Francisco Chronicle crossword, or perhaps one of those USA Today puzzles you find on the airplanes.

It’s only when you realize that you look for today’s puzzle before reading the news that you realize it’s true: you talk about swearing off the habit, but you can’t actually quit.

The deeper realization doesn’t sink in until you’ve tried and failed to complete the New York Times Sunday Crossword, yet can hardly wait until next Sunday to get beaten up again. You will neglect friends and family. You will alienate co-workers and jeopardize your job. You will burn up huge chunks of time on your solitary vice. You will remain in hot denial about what this means. But you will always get your crossword fix.

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Back in the golden Maleska days, my mom and I were the best of chums, and she still had all her faculties. We would get together at her place on Sunday afternoons. She would trot out the drinks, the New York Times Sunday Crossword, and dinner – in that order.

If you don’t already know, the rara avi who “construct” crossword puzzles have a plethora of words-in-trade that you only find in crosswords – never anywhere else. By trial and error I had already learned many of these so-called “words”, like “etui” (small sewing case) or “pismire” (ant). Wordplay is not only allowed but encouraged, so the answers to many clues are really just horrible puns.

The New York Times is all of the worst of that, and more. In other words, The Times has the best puzzles.

We would get through the “easy” parts of the Times puzzle and break for another drink. The “easy” parts are the words you know, or think you know, or think you might be able to figure out before the Earth cools to a deep-freeze cinderblock and the sun lurches off toward neighboring galaxies.

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The “hard” part is all the long empty columns and rows that make the puzzle look like a map of unsold real estate plots in the Mojave. The path to filling in the voids is to hack away at the foundations with bits and pieces you DO know. Being a linear kind of guy, I prefer to work in one corner until I get it all filled in. That doesn’t work with the Times. You just have to hopscotch randomly around the checkerboard until you start to see patterns. That’s where the real solving begins.

I have no facility for remembering obscure clues from 1977 puzzles, so you will have to take my word on this:

We had just filled in an important clue. It was some single phrase that filled out an entire horizontal row, with no breaks (black squares). The clue, it turned out, was related to the answer like fish are related to bicycles.

My mom, ever the proper Bostonian lady, shouted out, “Maleska! Why, you miserable SHIT!”

And we both started laughing helplessly. That was your cuss word, by the way – and there was really no more concise way to say it. Maleska had done his job: he set us up. For all we knew, Reagle might have actually constructed the puzzle, but it happened under editor Maleska’s administration, with Maleska’s full knowledge and approval, so the buck stops there.

As the PBS show demonstrated for me once again, I am by no means a crossword expert. It can take me 45 minutes to 4 hours to complete a really good tough puzzle, if I can finish it at all. Sometimes I leave it overnight on the coffee table, fill in one or two more words the next day, and so on, until eventually I toss it out in disgust. The experts, the ones who compete in the annual crossword contests, turn in times of 2 to 15 minutes.

I am rarely any good at the “cutesy” clues, or clues with entertainment categories as referents. I have a good command of the English vocabulary and its historically evolving spelling quirks, I do know some pretty arcane words, and I’m good with a logical, methodical approach to puzzle solving (which is why I like Sudoku and am getting better at it all the time).

None of this is sufficient defense against the unscrupulous crossword creators.

Black Ink And Other Delights

I do my puzzles in black or dark blue ink. You’d probably think this is some form of crossword snobbery, but the truth is, it’s my eyes. I can’t read pencil on newsprint reliably, “erasable” ballpoints are no better, and erasures make the new penciled letter even harder to read.

If you’re confident enough to put down an answer in black ink, you WILL have looked ahead for the cross-check clues before committing to something that’s going to force you to reach for the bottle of half-dried-out whiteout.

In the long run, I find deliberation faster and easier than guesswork-by-error.

I rarely look for the answer page. If it’s wrong, I’ll find out in time, because it’ll screw up what must come afterward. Sudoku has probably trained me in this mindset. In Sudoku, if you put down one wrong answer, you probably won’t know it until a rules conflict becomes evident in the next-to-last square. There is no way to know how far back the mistake started. I usually just throw out the whole Sudoku puzzle. I am starting to learn to read a Sudoku puzzle’s rows, columns and cells like “words” that fall into place, but random digits are not the same thing as real words, or even crosswordese words.

In crosswords, over-writing one or two letters usually gets you going again, because the words must make some dictionary sense.

I always do my crosswords with pen and paper, but I have tried the computer Sudoku programs, which is how I learned Sudoku. You can write in the “pencil tips” to help in solving, by elimination, what numbers or letters can and cannot belong in a given cell.

But now I rarely use the computer program for Sudoku. It is true that it is “too easy”, but my objection is deeper. The mechanical approach discourages any serious attempt to look at what the puzzle is telling us: the overall construction patterns that dictate how the play must follow. I already learned that from crosswords; I just didn’t know I knew it until I tried Sudoku for a long time

It appears they do have crosswords on web software. Google has them. I hope I don’t get hooked – they’re immoral, like giving a junkie free access to an unlimited drug supply. I am just going to try to eschew automated puzzles, for the same reasons I learned while playing Sudoku.

In conclusion, we might note how fashionable it is to accuse people of making mountains out of molehills. With crossword fans, I submit, it’s the other way around. We specialize in making molehills out of mountains.

From the Boston Globe , then, we learn this from their 2009 article:

LAST YEAR, DURING the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, host and puzzlemaster Will Shortz held aloft a tiny object. It was barely visible from the back of the cavernous hotel ballroom, but the whole room of more than 700 contestants promptly burst into applause. What was it? A little needlecase, better known to puzzlers as an etui – one of the mainstays of the curious language of crosswordese.

The vocabulary of crosswords is like the dialect of an alternate and highly specific universe, populated by Ednas and Enids and Ians; where the food is Oreos and oleo and the drinks ales and tea. It embraces particular bits of French (ami, ete), Latin (esse, ave), Spanish (este, oro), and even a little Hindi (Sri). It wields an epee with elan; is on familiar terms with tsars and emirs; enjoys music, especially the oboe and altos, and likes to travel: Iran, Oslo, Reno, Etna. And it’s interested in science, exploring ions and the atom, as well as the erne and the orca. [for more, see the enjoyable linked Globe article Farewell, etui by Erin McKean]

Worst of all, I know all those words. If you found this article interesting, there’s probably no hope for you either.

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