- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
After being battered by the afternoon's stint—four puzzles of increasing size and time limn (from 15 to 45 minutes)—the contestants came out bemoaning their inadequacies. Despite that, many were back after supper for more word games—but this time extracurricular ones, for entertainment only.
What is the essence of crossword talent? Different puzzlers give different answers. Some, like the school librarian who eventually finished third, say that what it takes is a mind full of trivia. Shortz, the certified enigmatologist, adds to that persistence and a sense of playfulness. Dr. Newman, the stomach man, has another view. "What you're really doing is trying to coordinate your thinking process with the person's who constructed the puzzle," he says. "The words in the puzzle are always the same. It's the clues that change."
There was a dazzling display of such mind-aligning ability at the Saturday evening fun-and-games session, when Shortz and his crew asked the solvers to guess various movie and play titles. They were first shown blank spaces representing the number of letters in the title; the missing letters were then inserted one at a time until somebody guessed the answer. One man correctly identified Mourning Becomes Electra with only the "t" showing. Another got I Am a Camera with just the blanks showing. "Terrifying," said one official.
The contestants also got a lecture. It came from one of their tormentors, Maura Jacobson, who was the constructor of Puzzle No. 4. "I apologize if I caused anyone any frustration," she said, and proceeded to discourse on the nuts and bolts of composing crosswords. Two of her main problems: symmetry, an esthetic tradition demanded by puzzle editors, and taboos. "We can't use diseases," she said. "It's a game and we're trying to make people happy. We don't use brand names or sex or bodily functions." It's a trial to be denied the use of "uric," she confided. And she admitted what all solvers already knew in their hearts—that when she gets stuck in those dread corners, she goes right for her obscure reference shelf. "I have Italian and Spanish dictionaries and atlases," she said. "I have encyclopedias with the lakes in Finland. All the words you hate."
After the fun and games, the solvers retired to rest before the Sunday finale. But not the Shortz people. They had 644 crossword puzzles to correct before morning and it turned out they had underestimated the workload. They were up all night. "It took an unbelievable amount of time," said Shortz, "particularly that third puzzle by Jack Luzzatto."
Constructors, it seems, often have recognizable individual styles. Maura Jacobson, for instance, leans to thematic, groan-inducing puns. Her No. 4 featured twisted movie and book titles. The solution to "Sex on the reservation," for instance, was "Lust of the Mohicans," and that for "French Tarzan's adventures" was "DeGaulle of the Wild."
Luzzatto, a former gag writer from the Bronx who's been puzzling for 50 years or so, cooked up a stew of arcane long words and short witticisms that left slews of solvers writhing when the clock ran out on Puzzle No. 3. He hit them mercilessly with "Stirring battle flags" (oriflammes), "Andalusian dance with castanets" (cachucha), "Paleozoic marine arthropod" (trilobite) and the outrageous "Greek festival maidens with baskets on their heads" (canephori). Perhaps even harder to cope with were his devilish short takes. A three-letter word meaning "the old West" turned out to be Mae. "Disease that took to the air" was flu. "College girl?" called for Alma. "Hell of a fellow" meant Pluto.
All this was no accident. Shortz had asked Luzzatto for an especially hard puzzle. "He's definitely one of the best constructors," Shortz said, "and he is a master at interlock. He has more wide-open white spaces than almost any other constructor, which is a real art." It was an art that was as hard on the scorers as on the puzzled puzzlers, because it took time to count all the blanks.
Another problem Shortz and his people did not foresee was the "e" dodge. Some solvers, finding time running out, desperately plugged all their remaining gaps with "e's" hoping some of them would be good for points. You don't need to be a word cognoscente to know that "e" is the most-used letter in English.
The sore-eyed scorers managed to post the standings before the 10 a.m. Sunday starting time for the fifth and final puzzle. The front-runner was Nancy Schuster, a Queens housewife with some construction work to her credit; she had sold several puzzles, including one to the Sunday Times. Mrs. Schuster had been letter perfect on three of the four Saturday puzzles. This brought gasps, applause and cries of "Stand up," when Shortz announced her feat just before counting down to Puzzle No. 5.