Wordplay

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


                 Will you believe me if I tell you that a documentary about the world of crossword puzzles could wrap you in appreciative laughter?  American sub-cultures spring up from the passion of their practitioners, and “Wordplay” is another in a series of great documentaries that explore the people who make the excitement.  You may think you aren’t interested in crossword puzzles, but you will surely love living in that subculture for a couple of hours. 

                Puzzlers are a cerebral group.  Sentimentality would be out of place in this gathering of east coast, word loving brains; but sharp remarks, unexpected observations and a fierce but friendly competition reign each year during the annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament at Stamford’s Marriott Hotel.  These are people who spend the rest of the year toiling and playing with words in the isolation of wonderful rooms filled with reference books, files, and pens.  In Stamford, they meet in friendships formed over the years by their love of language.  It is like finding, one says, “a lost tribe.”

                Will Shortz, legendary editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle, sets the tone when he says that he works for the two finest organizations in the world:  The New York Times and NPR.  “These are my kind of people.”  He wanted to be in puzzles from early childhood and was willing to live in poverty to do it.  He’s in puzzles, but I doubt that he’s poor.  Shortz went to Indiana University where a student was allowed to design his own major, and there the young man who loved squares and words created a major in Enigmatology. 

                Shortz writes half the puzzles that appear in The Times and selects and edits the other half from 60 or so submissions on a scale of difficulty that rises from Monday (easiest) through Saturday (confounding).  He has become, in the words of puzzle lover Jon Stewart, “the Errol Flynn of puzzle making.”  These preoccupied people tend to trail behind themselves an endearing clutter of papers and books.  They are not consumers, and they are entirely, comically free of glitz and pretense, wondrously removed from the toxicity of today’s excess; they are thinkers.  Folding the paper back to face the daily challenge is their supreme pleasure.    

One former winner muses about the inability of people to complete the Saturday puzzle in less than ten minutes.  “What’s wrong with them?” is not an arrogant question, just a curious one. The good ones want to break the two minute barrier; at the tournament, they will have fifteen.  This year’s final round will come down to three champs; one will prevail.

This band of brainy eccentrics believes that crossword puzzles “feed into the basic human need to figure things out.”  They understand and appreciate each other.  To love words, after all, is quite a pure and simple passion.  The puzzle constructers have an ethereal connection with the puzzle solvers, and boy, is it fun to watch them. 


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