Retired U.Va. Professor Still Building, Solving Puzzles

February 08, 2010

February 8, 2010 — What is a 15-letter word for someone who builds crossword puzzles?

Arthur I. Schulman.

Schulman, a retired cognitive psychology professor at the University of Virginia, sold his first crossword puzzle to the New York Times in 1952, when he was 17. He did not get a byline, as only the Sunday puzzle writers were credited then.

"I didn't ask them for a style sheet or anything," Schulman said. "I just submitted it.

"Puzzles then were different," he said. "The clues were the sort that you either knew the answer or you didn't. They try to lead you astray now. I did my puzzles to my own satisfaction, without having the solver in mind."

Schulman does not remember when he started creating crossword puzzles ("I think I was making them before I was solving them."), but he was always fascinated by letters and words and arranging them, especially stacking them.

"The structure of English words is generally vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant or consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel," he said. "Words come to mind and I like interlocking interesting words."

Schulman appreciates the esthetic quality of puzzles, how they look constructed with the black spaces and the white boxes, and how they look with the interlinked words. He browses unabridged dictionaries for obscure and interesting words he thinks people should know.

Will Shortz, crossword editor at the New York Times, said Schulman has a "classical, timeless style" that includes "crosswordese," such as a lively vocabulary and short, vowel-heavy words. According to Shortz, a good crossword is "fresh, original and engaging. I look for a sense of fun, vocabulary quality and liveliness. I also like words with J, Q, X and Z."

Shortz also praised Schulman's ability to write clues.

"Good clues are challenging and at the right level of difficulty," Shortz said. "They are accurate, fresh and have some humor or twist the solver's brain a little."

"Arthur is one of the 10 best constructors in the country," Shortz said, noting that he had recently featured a new puzzle from Schulman among a set from a handful of contributors who have written puzzles for the Times for more than 50 years. "He is one of the few old-time constructors to make the transition to modern puzzles. "

Schulman starts building his puzzle in the upper left corner and spreads out from there, determining the overall shape of the puzzle. He does not write thematic puzzles, where the key phrases are entered first, with the rest of the puzzle created around them.

He said many puzzle-makers now use computer programs to help them build puzzles, which he said "saves a lot of dog work."

Schulman started as a math major at Brooklyn College and, while he completed his degree, he did not see a career in mathematics for himself. After graduating, he used his math skills to land a job with an insurance company, but he was also attending the New School for Social Research. He eventually got a degree in psychology from Indiana University, where Shortz later received his own self-crafted degree in "enigmatology."

Schulman started his career at U.Va. in 1965 and retired 12 years ago.

Schulman submitted his first New York Times puzzle to then-editor Margaret Farrar, who had been editing crosswords for Simon and Schuster since 1924. Farrar was later the catalyst for a 1977 meeting between Schulman and future Times crossword editor Shortz, who was then a U.Va. law student living on the West Range.

They met on Shortz's last night on Grounds and they talked puzzles for at least an hour. They also discovered mutual enthusiasm for table tennis, a game they have played many times together over the years, sometimes while attending meetings of the National Puzzlers' League. Schulman enjoys solving other people's puzzles and Shortz described him as a "crackerjack solver."

"Life is full of puzzles," Schulman said. "There are puzzles within puzzles. They can be fun and very satisfying if you find the right approach."

Schulman does not limit his own writing to puzzles. He has started a book, "The Mind of the Puzzler," a portion of which was included in a cognitive psychology text in 1996. He has also compiled a book on "Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English," which explores Noah Webster's work.

He also teaches an informal course on "The Pleasures of Browsing the Dictionary" at U.Va.'s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

"You find things you are not looking for," he said. "You can find words that have a meaning to you."

— By Matt Kelly