'Wordplay' De-nerds Crossword Craze


June 15, 2005 — -- "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.

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."

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.

In 1978, Shortz helped organize the first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., which the local Marriott's marketing department conceived to beef up wintertime revenues. The event has taken on a life of its own, with more than 500 fierce competitors.

At times, "Wordplay" seems like the wildly successful 2002 documentary "Spellbound," which offered a glimpse into the cutthroat world of spelling competitions. But crossword competitors are adults. And while geek tormentors may say otherwise, they indeed have lives.

Top players include Ellen Ripstein of Manhattan, also known as the Susan Lucci of Crossword for finishing near the top for 18 years but not winning.

"Wordplay" also examines the lives of those evil geniuses known as professional crossword constructors. Shortz works with a stable of these experts who've found the perfect outlet for their bizarre gift with the language.

But writing a tantalizing crossword clue takes more than verbal skills. It takes an astute knowledge of popular culture.

While explaining his profession, Merl Reagle passes a Dunkin' Donuts. He stops midsentence, eyes lighting up, and says, "You know, if you take the first letter of "Dunkin" and move it to the end, it becomes 'Unkind Donuts."

Bill Clinton's famous ability to connect with everyday Americans might come, in part, from his puzzling prowess. "Half the time I do these things just to see what people are thinking about," he says.

While many see crosswords as a boredom beater, the former president says they're not bad as preparation for the Oval Office.

"Sometimes you have to go at a problem the way I go at a complicated crossword puzzle," Clinton says. "You start with what you know the answer to, and then you build on it. A lot of complex problems are like that. You have to find some aspect of it you understand and build on it until you can unravel the mystery that you're trying to solve."

Crossword puzzles might get a bad rap as nothing more than boredom beaters for folks with way too much time on their hands. But even if you're not a fan, this documentary explores the art of the puzzle.

Shortz edited the famed "Election Day Puzzle" (created by Jeremiah Farrell), which included a clue that asked puzzlers to come up with a 14-letter headline for tomorrow's paper.

"Clinton Elected" or "Bob Dole Elected" both fit. And miraculously, both responses worked. Even Dole says he was impressed. Unfortunately for him, the Electoral College proved to be one puzzle he couldn't solve.

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