PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y. — Pleasantville, N.Y. -- Here lies ESNE. And ATUA and OBAN. In this leafy and aptly named town in Westchester County, those four-letter words for serf, Polynesian demon and Scottish port are being laid to rest.
"And I will put ANOA out to pasture," Will Shortz puns. (Clue: Four-letter word for Celebes ox.)
F: Words, of course, never really die. Long after they've
been uttered by any living, breathing person, they retire to the Florida of the vocabulary: the crossword puzzle.
But now, they'll have one less refuge. And it's the big one, the New York Times puzzle that is the top, the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum of puzzledom. It has been taken over by Mr. Shortz, 41, the head brat of the pack that has been dragging crosswords into the 20th century with clues composed of clever turns of phrases and references as likely to come from MTV as opera.
Mr. Shortz debuted as Times puzzle editor yesterday with a killer of a crossword, a brow-furrowing, dictionary-defying affair -- and entirely in the witty, puckish spirit of what he has in store for the word-crunchers among us.
Working from a second-floor study in his fastidiously tidy home, Mr. Shortz hardly looks the part of a revolutionary with his neatly trimmed hair and preppy-leaning style of dress. Yet his ascension to this most prestigious post in his field represents a true changing of the guard: He is only the fourth puzzle editor in the 51 years that the Times has run crosswords, taking over for Eugene T. Maleska, who died in August, and decades younger than his predecessors. His approach to puzzles is equally fresh.
"Crosswords should reflect the language of the times," he says. "In the past, [the Times puzzle] tested classical knowedge. I will add more updated subjects -- TV, movies, modern slang, modern names in the news.
"It shouldn't just be a test of knowledge. It should be a test of cleverness, too," he adds. "I like puzzles for people with flexible minds."
This is no surprise, of course, to fans of Mr. Shortz, the "puzzle master" whose Sunday morning quizzes on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition have a loyal following. Or those who have wrestled with the mind-twisters he's created for "Games" magazine, where he was editor until several months ago, or the annual American Crossword Puzzle tournament, which he founded in 1978.
He hopes to bring a similarly updated style to the Times puzzle. And when 15 down is "Stimpy's buddy," as it was yesterday, you immediately know this is not your father's old puzzle. (The puzzle in yesterday's New York Times will appear in The Sun in its usual place in the Perspective section this coming Sunday.)
It's not just clues
But even more new-wave than the individual clues is the overall theme of the puzzle.
(As with "The Crying Game," we must warn you: If you haven't done constructor Peter Gordon's puzzle yet, skip the next paragraph!)
For 72 across, the clue was "After-shower scene," a seven-letter word. RAINBOW, right? Not in the new New York Times puzzle. Instead, in each of the seven boxes in which you normally would print a single letter, you had to squeeze a whole word, the entire name of a color of the rainbow. And in the right order of a real rainbow -- RED, ORANGE, YELLOW, GREEN, BLUE, INDIGO, VIOLET. And you had to do that every time those words appeared elsewhere in the puzzle -- meaning, for example, the six-letter answer to "'Closer to Fine' singers" would be "INDIGOGIRLS," and INDIGO is written in one box followed by GIRLS in the six boxes following. Even better (or worse, depending on your perspective) the answer, "VIOLETSAREBLUE," fit into a mere six squares.
"It's a tour de force," Mr. Shortz says with a devilish, gotcha grin. "I don't think this would have appeared in the old Times. It's too inventive, it's too fresh, it's too creative."
He's expecting some cross words from tradition-bound puzzle solvers -- but then, as all newspapers have learned, even the smallest of changes to longstanding features like puzzles and comics can set the phone lines afire.
"I'm sure I'll get complaints for things like using television references," says Mr. Shortz. "Some people probably think you shouldn't besmirch the Times puzzle that way. They just want puzzles to stay the same."
Such is the genteel world of crossword puzzles -- the kind of subculture in which an ongoing controversy is whether . . . brand names . . . are permissible. And some of Mr.Shortz' changes at the Times are barely blips on the radar to those who don't regularly and passionately follow this world: Daily puzzles, for example, will now bear the bylines of their constructors as Sunday puzzles always have. Shocking, we know, but someone had to break the news to you.
Of course, more can be made of this change that is warranted: The Times puzzles have had their wit and innovations in the past. Mr. Maleska, for example, once ran a puzzle called "Strip Tees" in which you eliminated the letter "t" in the answers. And, similarly, Mr. Shortz isn't abandoning all tradition and planning to darken all the white squares with references to the Beavises, Butt-heads and Dead Can Dances of fleeting culture. You'll still find, as in yesterday's puzzle, clues like "Tanzanian coins" (SENTI), for example.
He's a serious student of puzzle history and has the resume to prove it.
Born to the job
"Will was probably born to be the New York Times crossword puzzle editor," says Jack Rosenthal, the Sunday magazine editor who selected him. "He's totally devoted to puzzles."
Mr. Shortz is believed to be the only person with an actual college degree in "enigmatology" -- which he received in 1974 from Indiana University, which allows students to develop individualized majors. His home is a veritable museum of puzzle history, memorabilia and curiosities.
He constructed his first crossword at age 8 or 9 when his mother, hoping to keep him quiet while she held a bridge party, drew him a grid and showed him how to go across and down with words. He published his first puzzle when he was 14 and became a regular contributor to Dell's puzzle magazines at 16. He also has a law degree from the University of Virginia, which he planned to use only to make a lot of money and allow him the luxury of making puzzles.
Attracted by 'elegance'
He has a simple -- yet complete -- explanation for his lifelong fascination with puzzles: "Puzzles are elegant." He even likes the way puzzles look, the architectural quality of a structurally sound grid with just the right proportion of black and white building blocks. He even wears a Nicole Miller tie with a crossword puzzle pattern -- which that nasty Conan O'Brian made fun of on a recent appearance on the late night show.
Mr. Shortz never has had to fall back on a day job of lawyering. He joined Games magazine in 1978 as an associate editor and became its editor in 1989. Surprisingly, for someone who for many embodied the very Zeitgeist of Games, he was let go in August. Mr. Shortz won't discuss the specifics, noting only that like any business, puzzling has its internal politics. He remains an editor-at-large there.
Youth an advantage
Around the same time he left Games, Mr. Maleska of the Times died. Mr. Shortz applied for the job and beat out a short list of three other candidates. Although he thought his age would be the major hindrance -- he is decades younger than his predecessors -- he also knew that if he didn't apply now, there probably wouldn't be another opening in his lifetime.
Instead, his youth turned out to be a plus.
"He knew the name of a James Taylor song," Mr. Rosenthal says. He asked that admittedly mischievous question of the applicants as a way of "getting past the generational gap" that plagued the Times puzzle. "The puzzles were talking to a smaller and smaller audience," he says.
Stan Newman, whose puzzles are syndicated through Newsday, chortles to those who would keep the status quo: "You're not going to like it, guaranteed! Get used to it! Get a life! Let's have a mass burning of crossword puzzle dictionaries!"
The irrepressible Mr. Newman, like Mr. Shortz, is 41 and part of the so-called New Wave school of crosswords. He has long criticized the Times puzzle for its "Bulgarian River-17th Century soprano" kind of clues and is thrilled to have his friend in there cleaning out the cobwebs.
"Whoever is at the Times gets to call the tune," says Mr. Newman. "Will is now the spokesman of puzzles by nature of the job."
It was, of course, only a matter of time before the outside agitators of the puzzle world became the establishment. Mr. Newman, for example, recently became the managing director of puzzles and games for the Times Book Division of Random House. And now, it seems, the complaints will be coming from the old guard.
"I prefer the more classical style. I think most of our solvers would rather uncover a nice quote from Shakespeare or the title of a novel or a new word," says John M. Samson, 46, a constructor, editor and longtime collaborator of Mr. Maleska. "I have no problem with crosswordese. A lot of people like to find these old familiar words.
"There is a Games camp and a traditional camp," he says, planting himself squarely in the latter. "I wanted to preserve the classical type of puzzles that Eugene had brought to perfection in his 16 years at the Times."
Mr. Samson, despite being Mr. Maleska's heir apparent, was passed over in favor of Mr. Shortz but will continue contributing puzzles, such as the Sunday Christmas-themed crossword that he has constructed for many years.
"Will will unite everyone," assures Mr. Shortz' friend and fellow puzzler, Merl Reagle, 43, whose funny, punny crosswords appear in the San Francisco Examiner and other newspapers and magazines. "Will may seem to be a radical choice, but he really is a conservative choice. All you have to do is look at his resume. He knows where puzzles have been and where they're going. He's really the keeper of the flame."
Mr. Shortz indeed clearly loves joining the grand Times lineage of puzzle editors: He was friendly with and admired the first two editors, Margaret Farrar, who served from 1942 to 1969, when Will Weng took over the job and held it until he retired in 1977. Of his immediate predecessor, a scholarly educator whose puzzles were renowned for their difficulty, well, there were philosophical and personality differences that the mannerly Mr. Shortz doesn't discuss publicly anymore.
He has fond memories of Mrs. Farrar, the pioneering grande dame of her field, and Mr. Weng, whose freewheeling humor helped loosen up the old crossword. The Times puzzles have always reflected the personalities and quirks of their editors and, for their part, solvers came to feel a proprietary interest toward these seemingly impersonal black-and-white grids.
"Margaret Farrar wouldn't allow IDI to appear in puzzles because she thought Amin was a despicable man," Mr. Shortz recalls. "And when Will Weng was editor, there was an elderly lady who would call him at home every Sunday morning and ask him to give her one across and one down, 'just to get me going.' "
Eventually, a Sunday came when the woman didn't call, which highly worried Mr. Weng. He eventually tracked her down -- she had been in the hospital, Mr. Shortz says.
A crossword resurgence?
Today, of course, there is a 900 number to call if you get stumped.
Crossword puzzles are enjoying another one of their periodic resurgences, Mr. Shortz believes. And he happily notes that we currently have a First Solver. Who does them in ink.
Mr. Shortz and his Games colleague Mike Shenk were introduced to Bill Clinton before the Democratic convention and presented him with a daily-sized puzzle that Mr. Shenk created. The candidate started the timer on his watch, worked the puzzle -- even taking a phone call as he continued scratching away -- and finished it in six minutes and 54 seconds. "A very good time," Mr. Shortz notes.
As for whether this bodes well for the puzzling task of governing, Mr. Shortz wouldn't presume to extrapolate larger meanings.
"But," he says, "he's obviously very bright."