In a single year, Will Shortz writes more than 16,000 clues for the New York Times’ crossword puzzles, hinting at words from the arcane and obscure to the casual and commonplace. Then there’s his other work: stumping call-in contestants on NPR’s Weekend Edition, running the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, creating and editing dozens of puzzle books. He even pops up on TV occasionally, showcasing his puzzle enthusiasm on sit-coms and late-night talk shows.
Knowing all that, you might assume that Shortz — the poster guy for puzzles of all kinds — would be against the unofficial entrant in next month’s Crossword Tournament: a puzzle-solving computer program dubbed Dr. Fill. Actually, he’s rather intrigued. Shortz took a short break from making puzzles to explain why we love them and how technology is affecting his field.
Tell me about Dr. Fill.
He’s not officially entered. He’s not eligible for a prize. But he will be solving all the puzzles and people will be able to see how the humans do against the computer.
We had another computer [at the Tournament] once before in 1999. It did surprisingly well. It would have finished 147th out of 255 contestants if it had been a competitor, which is pretty impressive. But Dr. Fill, which was designed by Matt Ginsberg, is better and more sophisticated, and I think actually has a chance of winning the tournament — or at least being among the top solvers.
Does that scare you?
It doesn’t scare me, no. I’m impressed. Computers are becoming more and more sophisticated. It’s not as if they can actually think. The human programmed the computer, so I’m impressed with the human who was able to do this.
Still, it brings up some interesting questions about how technology is changing the world of puzzles.
I’d say it’s happening pretty much for the better. There are electronic tools now for aiding in crossword construction. People can now solve crosswords on the computer, which they couldn’t do 20 years ago. And there is now a large crossword community online, which is great. It used to be crosswords were a completely solitary activity and most people who solved crosswords didn’t know anyone else who did them. Now you can go into online forums and see how your solving experience compares with other people’s. Or you can go online and solve crosswords competitively or collaboratively.
I think computers and the internet have made the whole experience better and more satisfying.
Why are puzzles still popular, even as so many other forms of entertainment have emerged?
Puzzles go all the way back in human history. There’s something about puzzle-solving that touches us. It’s part of being human to want to solve a mystery and to challenge yourself, so puzzle-solving is part of the human experience.
We’re faced with puzzles of a sort all day long — problems that we just muddle through and do the best we can with. With a human-made puzzle, there is one perfect solution, so it’s very satisfying to find that. Puzzle-solving scratches an itch that we don’t reach in any other way.
How do you feel about being the face and name of puzzles?
It’s very satisfying. There are four daily blogs about the New York Times crossword and a couple more blogs just about the Sunday puzzle. I’m very proud that people think that what I do is significant enough and interesting enough to devote that amount of time to it.
Any puzzle groupies?
Groupies is a bit strong. There are big fans, but there’s no one rummaging through my garbage, for example.
How do you keep coming up with new crossword clues? It must be getting tough now that you’ve written several hundreds of thousands of them.
It’s a matter of taking a word and just letting it roll around in my head, thinking of the different ways it can be used. It’s getting harder and harder to write original clues for answers that come up a lot, like AREA. It’s a good word, has lots of meanings. I could say neighborhood, vicinity, region, geometrical calculation, ____ code. There’s lots of ways to clue it, but that word has appeared hundreds of times and it’s getting really hard to write a fresh clue for it.
How can puzzles help us?
First of all, they’re just enjoyable. We do lots of things for entertainment every day. Crosswords and puzzles in general are a healthy entertainment. But besides that, I think they’re also useful entertainment because they exercise the brain. Studies show that puzzle-solving and crosswords in particular help stave off Alzheimer’s disease and keep the brain limber. Crosswords also lead you into every field of human knowledge — things you learned in school, classical subjects, on up to TV, movies, rock ‘n’ roll, sports and vocabulary. Puzzles actually make you a better person.
What’s the most innovative thing you’ve seen recently in the world of puzzles, or even outside of it?
I’m impressed by GPS. I don’t understand how GPS works. I know it’s not a brand-new thing, but I just got one as a Christmas gift and I’m just really impressed that the GPS device knows every street that I’m ever going to travel on. It knows whether it’s one-way or not. It knows where the turns are and what they’re called. You can even hear the lady’s voice say the street name. Sometimes she gets it wrong. I was on Odell Avenue in Yonkers last night and I heard her say “Odle Avenue.” I’m sure it’s not [pronounced] “Odle,” so she’s not perfect, but I’m still really impressed.
Photo: Donald Christensen