Crossword Master and University of Virginia Law Alumnus Will Shortz Brings His Word Games To Grounds

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Matt Kelly:

April 3, 2008 — Charlottesville's crossword enthusiasts and word-savvy students put down their puzzles long enough Wednesday night to hear a talk at the University of Virginia by Will Shortz, crossword editor for The New York Times. A member of the U.Va. Law School's class of 1977, Shortz also holds the world's only college degree in "enigmatology," the study of puzzles.

Shortz opened the talk by sharing some of his favorite crosswords, including a 1997 New York Times puzzle that incorporated a marriage proposal for a loyal solver, an idea he thought would be "really cool to do once." His all-time favorite crossword ran on Election Day in 1996, when Bob Dole and Bill Clinton vied for the presidency.

"The critical clue for the middle answer across the diagram was. 'Headline in tomorrow's newspaper,'" Shortz said. "And the answer could be 'Clinton elected' or 'Bob Dole elected. Either one of those answers worked with the crossing. For example, the first down answer across that was 'Black Halloween animal' and you could fill in 'cat' making the 'c' in Clinton or 'bat' forming the first 'b' in Bob Dole."

Shortz said he fielded calls from angry supporters of both candidates before explaining the trick in the next day's paper.

After outlining the history of the crossword, which first appeared in the New York World newspaper in 1913, Shortz gave some advice to would-be puzzle-makers in the audience.
"If you want a little exercise, take the crossword grid out the newspaper to see if you can fill it in," Shortz said. "I would recommend taking one with lots of short words, not those Friday or Saturday grids."

Shortz said he receives 75 to 100 submissions a week for The New York Times puzzle, from which he can only choose seven to publish. After deciding to use a submission, he usually edits about 50 percent of the clues to ensure their accuracy, proper level of difficulty, and "freshness." He particularly likes to select puzzles with interesting themes and colorful vocabulary.

While Shortz started making puzzles when he was 8 years old and always wanted to be a professional puzzle-maker, he went to law school on the advice of his parents. In his last semester at U.Va, he was summoned by the law school's placement office.

"They saw that I was the only person in my class who had never interviewed for a job," Shortz said. "It didn't look good. The head of the placement office called me in and asked me what I was going to do when I graduated. I told her I had a job at Penny Press, and I saw her write down in her book 'Penny, Press,' waiting for the rest of the [law firm] name. I had to break it to her that it was a crossword magazine company, but I did have a job."

Shortz did add that his law degree has proved helpful professionally.

"Law is great training for the mind for almost any career," Shortz said. "It was good for me because the thinking skills you get from law school are important in puzzle-solving and puzzle-making. To be able to take a complex issue or problem, separate it into its component parts and deal with each part individually is valuable."

The University Programs Council organized the visit to showcase a prominent alumnus and provide an entertaining evening for the community. 

"He is a notable alum and he is a household name," said Kate Becker, member of the UPC Speakers Committee and program coordinator for the event. "Even if a lot of young students don't know his name, he is really widely known. It was something that could involve the entire community as well as U.Va. students."

Shortz spent the majority of his talk testing the audience's lexical knowledge with verbal word games. Every answer to one game was a familiar two-word phrases with the initials "V" and "A," in honor of his host institution. Shortz also used the "'VA' is for Word Lovers" puzzle on Sunday's "Weekend Edition Sunday" on National Public Radio, mentioning his recent visit to U.Va. Shortz has served as the show's puzzle master since 1987.

After a winner was determined in a game of "Beat the Champ," Shortz commented on the puzzle-solving skills of the U.Va. audience.

"They were great," Shortz said, before admitting their best quality might have been their eagerness to participate in the contest. "There are a lot of events I do where it is like pulling teeth to get people to volunteer. People were pretty fast here."

Shortz is the author or editor of more than 150 books, founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and subject of the acclaimed 2006 documentary "Wordplay." He has been the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times since 1993.

— By Catherine Conkle