'Wordplay' De-nerds Crossword Craze


"Denerding" isn't yet a word recognized by New York Times editors, even for use in its crossword puzzle, but it might become one after "Wordplay" hits theaters.

While you might not find any of the crossword champs with pocket protectors, many of the top puzzlers featured in "Wordplay" live up to the popular image of the bookish know-it-all who wants to show off, work in pen rather than pencil, and solve the Times' Monday puzzle in less than three minutes.

But if there's still a stigma attached to puzzlers, the documentary, opening Friday, blows it apart, with a close look at the Times puzzle editor, Will Shortz.

As many as 50 million American puzzlers are Shortz fans. They're as Republican as Bob Dole, as Democratic as Bill Clinton, and as hip as Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, who've been known to ask in concert "Did anyone get 6-Down today?"

Of course, many of the top puzzlers seem lost in their own wordy world. "I've always been fascinated by the letter 'Q'," says Trip Payne, one of the grandmasters at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Crossword as Sport: 'Bring It On!'

Another crossword gladiator likens his prowess to the athletic excellence of Barry Bonds, and when he does, filmmaker Patrick Creadon cuts to the mighty slugger swinging through a third-strike pitch.

Call it revenge of the nerds, because the mighty Bonds has been struck out by another prominent and accomplished crossword puzzler, New York Yankee ace hurler Mike Mussina.

"If you can handle the puzzle in the Times, you can handle any puzzle they throw at you," Mussina says.

On a Saturday afternoon a few seasons ago, while Mussina was tossing one of his gems, Yankee announcer Michael Kay described how the pitcher was at his locker room completing a puzzle before his pregame warm-up.

As if sensing the typical baseball fan wouldn't notice the significance of this feat, Kay felt compelled to elaborate. "The Times makes the toughest crosswords, and if you can do it on Monday, you should be proud of yourself. But by Tuesday and Wednesday, they keep getting harder," he said, noting that the man on the mound graduated from Stanford University.

"If you can do the puzzle by Saturday, you're something special. And that's why you won't see what Mussina was doing in a major league locker room too often."

The Errol Flynn of Crosswords

It's apparently not that unusual to call puzzling a sport.

"Bring it on, Shortz!" shouts Comedy Central's Jon Stewart as he works a puzzle from his desk in gym clothes.

"I am a Times puzzle fan," Stewart says. "I will solve the USA Today puzzle [when traveling], but I don't feel good about myself."

Shortz is indeed a legend. Known to millions as the "Puzzle Master" on National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition," he took over the mantle of Times crossword editor in 1993, becoming only the fourth person since 1942 to assume what many consider the ultimate dream job.

"When you imagine a 'crossword guy,' you imagine he's 13 or 14 inches tall … someone who doesn't care to go more than 5 feet without his inhaler," says Stewart. "And yet he's a giant man. He's the Errol Flynn of crossword puzzling."

Shortz, a 53-year-old Indiana University graduate, is said to be the only person in the world to hold a degree in enigmatology (the study of words), a curriculum he designed under the university's general studies program.

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