Will Shortz: Crosswords At A Crossroads

Will Shortz remembers the first national crossword puzzle tournament at Stamford’s Marriott Hotel on a March weekend in 1978.

“I underestimated how many officials we needed,” says Shortz, 64, New York Times crossword puzzle editor and all-around guru of American games. “We didn’t have computers then — we didn’t even bring an adding machine — and were literally up all night scoring the puzzles by hand.”

Times have changed and there is now computerized scoring, puzzle solving that can be followed online, and, for the final round at the upcoming 40th anniversary tournament March 24-26, there’s even play-by-play commentary by National Public Radio’s Ophira Eisenberg (host of Ask Me Another) and crossword master Greg Pliska.

In 1978, the $150 top prize was awarded by former New York Times crossword editor Margaret Farrar, whose career with the word games began in the 1920s. Now the top tournament winner receives $5,000.

But these puzzle folks haven’t changed much, though the range of people has broadened, Shortz says of the crowd of nearly 1,000 that turns out for the weekend — including about 600 official competitors.

In these divided-nation times, Shortz says he wants the puzzles to connect with all types of solvers.

“A puzzle that skewed too young or old is going to lose a part of its audience,” he says. “I would never present a topical puzzle on the subject of Broadway or about cars — especially in a tournament — because that would skew the results unfairly to someone who is particularly good in one field. That’s not to say we won’t have cultural references, but I try to have them varied so the challenges will be shared equally.”

The biggest change that crosswords have faced is the computer. “Crosswords are a little better suited to print than it is to the electronic media. There is still that tactile pleasure in moving a writing implement across a paper. It’s different — and not quite as good — as typing. You can also jump from one part of the grid to another more easily on paper. With that said, crosswords are going to come through all right in the new world.”