Wordplay: Patrick Creadon’s Docu of N.Y. Times Puzzle Editor Will Shortz

Sundance Film Festival 2006 (Documentary Competition)–Offering an inside look at the socio-cultural world of crossword puzzles, “Wordplay” focuses on the man most associated with such puzzles, the colorful New York Times puzzle editor and NPR puzzle-master Will Shortz.

Director Patrick Creadon introduces us to this passionate hero, and to the inner workings of his brilliant and often hilarious contributors, including syndicated puzzle creator Merl Reagle. Along the way, the film presents interviews with celebrity crossword puzzlers such as Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls, who reveal their process, insight and the allure of the game.

In addition to deconstructing this uniquely American institution, “Wordplay” takes us though the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where almost five hundred competitors battled it out for the title Crossword Champ and showed their true colors along the way.

Known to millions as National Public Radio’s “Puzzle Master,” Will Shortz has spent his entire lifetime studying, creating, and editing puzzles, and has built a huge following along the way.

Among Shortz’s die-hard fans are President Bill Clinton, Senator Bob Dole, “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls, and Yankee’s ace pitcher Mike Mussina. Shortz is considered the main reason why over 50 million Americans do crosswords every week.

Along the way, “Wordplay” also introduces us to several world-class crossword solvers and follows them to Stamford, CT, as they compete at the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT). Hosted and directed by Shortz, the tournament is the nation’s oldest and largest crossword competition. Competitors travel from all over the world to attend, and vary in age from teenagers to octogenarians.

Over the course of one long, snowy weekend, almost five hundred competitors battle it out for the title Crossword Champ. The competition is based on both speed and accuracy, and one wrong (or blank) square guarantees that someone else will be taking home the trophy. You can see why Shortz calls the event the most exciting competition in tournament history!

I am not an avid player and yet enjoy this docu for its exploration of the humor and madness, the comedy and the melodrama that has become our national obsessions with these puzzles. Whether youre a Monday-only solver (the easiest day of the week) or a Saturday brain-busting wizard, youre sure to enjoy your very own A-ha! moment when you experience this movie.

End Note

I was a student at Columbia University and for years lived In New York City, where most people rely on public transportation. The morning sight of subway cars full of people doing the crossword puzzle is something truly unique to behold.

The Players (in alphabetical order)

Ken Burns, filmmaker. A native of Brooklyn, Ken Burns has made some of the greatest documentary films of our time. Two of his films, THE STATUE OF LIBERTY and BROOKLYN BRIDGE, deal specifically with New York icons and explore their importance to the communities and countries in which they reside. Like the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, Burns posits that the New York Times crossword is an iconic manifestation of civilization. How important is the puzzle in his daily life I dont smoke, I dont drink coffee, and I dont need to have a drink at the end of the day. What I do need is to solve the crossword, every day, in ink.

William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President of the United States. An avid crossword solver for years, President Clinton discusses the New York Times famous Election Day 96 Puzzle, created by Jeremiah Farrell and edited by Will Shortz. The puzzle, which Shortz considers the greatest crossword puzzle ever created, includes a trick in the answers that astounds to this day. Its amazing that someone could think of that, marvels the President. Half the time I do these things just to see what people are thinking about. Clinton goes on to compare the similarities between solving a tough crossword and solving a difficult real-life situation. Sometimes you have to go at a problem the way I go at a complicated crossword puzzle. 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 youre trying to solve.

Jon Delfin, piano player. Give me blank spaces and I want to fill them in. Considered by many to be the greatest competitive crossword solver of our time, Jon Delfin has won the American Crossword Championship Tournament in Stamford a record 7 times. I never train for the tournament, like most other serious competitors do, says Delfin, who lives in New York City. I just show up and try to do the best I can.

Tyler Hinman, college student. Tyler was handed a crossword for the first time in study hall in 9th Grade. I did it, failed miserably, and was hooked. To train for the annual tournament in Stamford he solves seven puzzles every day leading up to the tournament. He is currently a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, where he majors in Information Technology.

Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers), singer/songwriters. Amy and Emily have been performing together for over 25 years. Loyal fans to The New York Times crossword, theyve been known to ask for answers to the puzzle from the stage during their concerts. Did anyone get 6-Down today is how one fan remembers it. Although they typically solve using a pen, they always make their band members use pencil. Why is that asked Amy in the film. Because we dont trust them, laughed Emily.

Mike Mussina, starting pitcher, New York Yankees. A key member of the Yankees pitching staff since 2001, Mussina has a career win-loss record of 224-127. He started doing crossword puzzles as a college student at Stanford, where he earned a degree in economics in three and a half years. If you can handle the puzzle in the Times, you can handle any puzzle they throw at you.

Daniel Okrent, former Public Editor, The New York Times. Following the Jason Blair scandal that rocked the New York Times in 2003, Daniel Okrent was hired as the papers first ever Public Editor. Its called the Ombudsmen at other papers, but the Times being the Times, they needed a more pretentious title, says Okrent with a smile. His duties as Public Editor were to critique the papers own reporters, techniques, and culture within the newsroom. I can say this now that I no longer work there the Times is the most important news medium in the world. Theres nothing else like it. And the puzzle fits into the paper because theres no other puzzle like it.

Trip Payne, professional crossword constructor. A three-time winner of the tournament in Stamford, CT, Payne became the youngest person ever to win the tournament in 1993 at age 24. Any year that I dont win the tournament, I admit that Im not happy about it theres a part of me that thinks Youre good enough to win you should win, and that part of me is upset when I dont. In WORDPLAY Payne returns to Stamford to defend the title that he won in 2004.

Merl Reagle, professional crossword constructor. Crosswords feed into a basic human need to figure things out, says Reagle, whose crosswords are featured every Sunday in many of the nations top newspapers (including the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Enquirer, The Seattle Times, and The New York Observer). Merl does most of his puzzle constructing in a comfortable booth at his favorite diner in Tampa, FL.

Ellen Ripstein, editor. A resident of Manhattan, Ripstein went to the very first tournament in Stamford in 1978, and has been at almost every tournament since then. After 18 years of finishing near the top but never actually winning the championship she had earned the nickname The Susan Lucci of Crosswords. Finally in 2001 her dry spell ended when she took home the crown.

Al Sanders, Project Manager, Hewlett-Packard. A resident of Fort Collins, CO, Sanders and his wife Eileen have three children. Sanders in some ways has become the new Ellen Ripstein, finishing near the top for several years, but to date never winning the tournament. In fact, going into the 2005 tournament, he had taken third place every year for five of the previous six tears. The only year he didnt take third was 2000 when he finished fourth. Theres just something special about actually being a champion, and I really hope sometime in the next few years I can close the deal and win one of these things.

Will Shortz, Editor, New York Times Crossword, and National Public Radio personality. Will Shortz has been studying, creating, and editing puzzles for his entire life. A graduate of Indiana University, he is the only person in the world to hold a degree in Enigmatology (the study of puzzles), which he created under the auspices of the Universitys General Studies Program. A former editor at Games Magazine, Shortz was asked in 1978 to help organize the very first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) in Stamford, CT. The event was originally conceived of by a member of the Stamford Marriotts marketing department to help create business for the new hotel. After a few years the Marriott decided to end their official involvement in the tournament, at which point Shortz took up the reigns and became and continues to be the director of the annual event. The event still takes place every March (as it has since 1978) at the Stamford Marriott hotel. The tournament featured in WORDPLAY is the 28th Annual ACPT.

Shortz is also known to millions as National Public Radios Puzzle Master, and has been stumping listeners with various puzzles and word games on NPRs Weekend Edition show since the program began in 1987.

In 1993, after the sudden death of the New York Times Crossword Editor Eugene Maleska, Shortz became only the fourth person to hold this position. Previous editors were Margaret Petherbridge Farrar (editor from 1942-1967), Will Weng (1967-1977), and Eugene Maleska (1977-1993).

Jon Stewart, Host, The Daily Show. Stewart has been a fan of The New York Times crossword puzzle for many years, and says he was surprised when he met Shortz for the first time. When you imagine crossword guy you imagine hes thirteen or fourteen inches tall (and that hes) someone who doesnt care to go more than five feet without his inhaler. And yet hes a giant man. Hes the Errol Flynn of crossword puzzling.