Puzzlemeister's poised to make his mark


Ron Osher's lean and mean . . . not that it matters.

Nor does it matter whether he loads up on carbs, does his sit-ups or drinks raw egg. Wheaties, he can take or leave. Still, this 100 percent hunk of American manhood will soon represent our country in grueling international competition -- pencil in hand.

"There aren't a whole lot of things I can represent the United States in," confesses the Manhattan entertainment exec. But when it comes to brain teasers, Mr. Osher is No. 1.

Mazes. Word problems. Major dot-connecting activity. The 33-year-old has proven his prowess in all these, and more. By garnering first prize in Games magazine's nationwide puzzle competition, Mr. Osher and three runners-up will be flown to Brno, Slovakia, this fall. Their objective: Bring back the gold.

"It's the mental equivalent of the Olympics," says Will Shortz, editor of Games magazine and founding father of this 20-country puzzle-off, now in its second year.

Last year, the Americans came in first. This year, he says, "the Japanese are organizing themselves much better."

Still, puzzlemeister Mr. Osher appears to be bearing up well under the pressure.

Right now, he's doing his usual puzzle or two a day, with a personal trainer, "my daughter, age 4." And just how can she help him? "Well, she knows the alphabet."

Actually, the alphabet won't help Mr. Osher much in Slovakia, since all the puzzles are language-neutral. That means contestants will match the kind of wits you knew you had -- or lacked -- by grade three, when you stared down your first set of story problems. Mr. Osher, who's surprisingly un-nerdy, nonetheless lights up when faced with such a challenge. "Whereas in the real world, frustration is very frustrating, with puzzles there's always a right answer," he beams. In other words: The right kind of frustration is fun.

The wrong kind of frustration is what Mr. Osher felt last year when he came in fifth in the national competition, just one place short of qualifying for the American team. Leaping to first place just a year later, he can't help but feel pleased. Alas, it may not be easy for Mr. Osher to cash in on his new status. The calculator endorsements have yet to flood in. No one has asked him to model pocket protectors, or cameo in a film strip.

"Some of the people I've told are impressed," says Mr. Osher, "and some think it's the most ridiculous thing they've ever heard. Which is about right."

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