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Panel Nerds: Will Shortz, Puzzlemaster

Who: Will Shortz
What
: Will Shortz at The New York Times‘ Arts & Leisure Weekend
Where: Times Center
When: January 9, 2011
Thumbs
: Up

“Every answer has to be a real word or phrase. You can’t just make stuff up,” Will Shortz said while outlining the five rules to making crossword puzzles. It’s not something you’d think would need to be explained, but Shortz said that he’s had to remind a few potential New York Times puzzle contributors about the importance of making their clues possible to figure out. Along those lines, he said that in upcoming puzzle will feature the Times‘ first use of a Chinese word, arguing that some foreign words fit inside “testing everything people know.”

He spends his days evaluating and polishing up contributions from puzzlemakers seeking to be published in The Gray Lady. He said he looks at freshness, difficulty level, and humor, among other things, and is a “hand-on” editor who will, on average, tweak 50 percent of clues. As the puzzles editor, Shortz looks at more than just crosswords. He is in charge of the KenKens, Sudokus, acrostics, and all other varieties of games that the Times runs. He plans to ask for the Sunday magazine to begin carrying two full pages of puzzles since puzzles have such immense popularity.

Shortz is about as obsessive as you’d think. He gave a brief recap of the past 100 years of crosswords’ appearances in national publications, and even revealed that his senior thesis while studying enigmatology at Indiana University centered on puzzles before 1860. He revealed that Simon & Schuster’s first published book in 1924 was a collection of crosswords. In 1942, The New York Times decided to join the craze and produce its first crosswords.

The highlight of the event came when a 13-year-old boy complained that often the Times‘ crossword will feature clues that are impossible to get unless you’re familiar already with the obscure reference. When Shortz asked him to elaborate with examples, the kid said, “MASH star Alda.” After the crowd’s laughter let up, Shortz said that he his puzzles are intended to reach a wide audience of people of different ages and interests and that words like “Alan” that are short and vowel-heavy assist puzzlemakers during construction.

The goal, he said, is to have the puzzles reflect the culture of Times readers. It sounded to us like he also tries to uphold the integrity and prestige typically associated with the publication.

What They Said
“Most people have no idea what a crossword editor does, even those at the Times. And I kind of like if that way.”
– Will Shortz prefers to keep a low profile

“Everything the Times does has to me more sophisticated and more well done than anything everyone else does.”
– Will Shortz explains why the paper was slow to incorporate Sudokus into its pages

“I think he has improved the quality of crosswords, he’s elevated it.”
Will Shortz says that bloggers like Rex Parker have earned a place in the conversation

What We Thought

  • We liked how Shortz opened his talk with a rundown of his favorite puzzles of 2010. Not only did he highlight the cleverness and creativity of some contributors, it showed how much Shortz values them. He’s more than just an editor; he’s an admirer.
  • Shortz shared that when he watches “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” he tries to guess the percentage of the audience who will know the answer when polled. He said he’s actually pretty good at it, which shows he has a good sense of what people know. We got the sense that Shortz watches game shows differently than we do.

PANEL RULES!

Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

A good job all around from the audience of “puzzleheads.” We got the impression that this talk more than any other we’ve attended was filled with avid fans and followers who wished to participate more than observe. The questions exemplified not only a smart and thoughtful audience, but also one that came in wanting to prove what they knew. Shortz, who’s probably dealt with similarly intelligent groups, came prepared with a set of games that allowed audience members to show their stuff. We’d never seen a lecturer or panelist slot in a section after the Q&A. In this case, it worked brilliantly. Shortz knows more than just trivia; he knows his people.

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