The editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle talks about starring in the documentary
Do you race to the newspaper and immediately throw everything else out except for the crossword puzzle? And if you're not doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, are you really doing the best of the day?
Will also started the American Crossword Tournament which takes place every year in Stamford, Connecticut. We sat down with Will to talk about the documentary and what else - crosswords.
Here's what he had to say:
How did you become the person Patrick wanted to do the movie about?
Will Shortz: He called me about a year ago, maybe December '04 or January '05 and said he wanted to do a movie about me. However, it didn't sink in that it was originally going to be about me; I thought it was going to be just crosswords in general. I said you have to come to the American Crossword Tournament. I actually discouraged him at first; there was another documentary film being made at the time. The people had spent two years filming it and it sounded like it was going to be great. And so I told him, 'There's already one being done.' And they were going to sell it to cable TV. And Patrick said, 'That's alright, we're going to try and get ours into theaters; it's going to be a little different.' And so I said, 'Sure, go ahead.' I say yes to just about anything, what do I care; and I never dreamed that they would be successful like this and especially as successful as they've been.
So do you think all these academic tournaments can only help your movie?
Will Shortz: Yeah, huh. Well, of course, Wordplay is more than that; the tournament is only half of the film. But yeah, there's this whole genre, sub-sub genre of intellectual athletic events of Spellbound, Word Wars, Akeelah and the Bee; I love them all. I love Spellbound because of the kids; it's very hard to compete with that. I like Wordplay a lot more than Word Wars because the characters in that are not so appealing, not so sympathetic. Akeelah and the Bee is fictional, but I love that movie; I cry through half the movie, it was so joyful.
Has there ever been a puzzle you haven't been able to finish?
Will Shortz: Yeah, yeah; it's not hard to make a puzzle that's unfairly hard. All you have to do is cross two obscure words and you're not going to get that crossing so there have been a lot of puzzles made like that. I don't know if you're into Sodoku? I'm into that, too, and there are some Sodoku puzzles I haven't been able to crack yet. I haven't given up yet; I've got them lying around the house, I will get back to them.
What about certain puzzles you've gotten the most response from people who haven't been able to finish?
Will Shortz: I attract things a number of ways. First, the New York Times crossword is available online now, and there's an applet there that you can time yourself and the times are posted. And sometimes on the Saturday puzzle, Saturday is the hardest of the week; maybe in the first hour, there will only be a couple dozen people who have finished it. They'll say, 'Oh yeah, that's a real hard one.' That's a good sign of how hard it is. I can back up and say that every Times crossword is tested, test solved by five people before it ever appears in print. So I have a good idea of the difficulty of the puzzle, but then I've given it to five people and they get back to me their comments on it; if the puzzle's really hard, I'll hear from them. If the puzzle is too hard, I wouldn't run it; but, that's never happened before. I think I can gauge people's reactions to a puzzle; I'm pretty good at that. When I watch Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and they go to the audience for the 'audience lifeline,' I'm pretty good at predicting the percentage of people who will answer it correctly from the audience.
Have you ever gotten any strange letters in the mail from fans?
Will Shortz: Hardly ever happens, no. There was one guy who kept coming by the New York Times, and there's security up front, so they won't let you up unless someone comes down to get you. And I don't even work at the Times, I work at home and he didn't realize that. So he kept coming by and leaving packages and messages and he was strange; he was the one person I saved all his stuff just in case anything ever happened, I wanted there to be a printed record of it. Basically, puzzle people are nice. When I started at the Times, I wondered if I would have to get an unlisted phone number; would people call me asking for help? And in my 12 and a half years, no; I may have gotten 2 or 3 unsolicited calls about the puzzle, people are really respectful and they really don't bother me.
What's the best or nicest story you've ever heard?
Will Shortz: Well, I don't know about nicest, but one of the strangest was there was this lady in Long Island, she called me on a Tuesday and said that her mother had just died the day before, she said her mother was a huge New York Times Crossword solver. They were burying her on Thursday, and she was wondering if there was anyway she could get an advanced copy of the following Sunday's New York Times Crossword puzzle to put in the casket and bury with her. I thought about it and said, 'Ok' and the next day we FedEx'ed her an advanced copy of the magazine and now I guess the mother is happy for eternity.
But no answers.
Will Shortz: Exactly, she'll have to figure it out for herself. That's strange, but it's nice; or it's nice in a strange way, but the crossword was such an important part of her life, that this is the one thing that the daughter wanted buried with her mother.
Do the competitions ever get cut-throat?
Will Shortz: I have never seen that; we have dividers set between the contestants as you see in the wide scenes to prevent wondering eyes. But honestly, I think I could take them away and they wouldn't be needed, honestly. You see in the film where two of the top contestants are trying to get 25 more points for one of their opponents, Tyler (Hinman), because they feel he deserves them. That's the sort of spirit at the event; that's why they're there. Why are you there? The grand prize is $4000; that's nice, but it's not $100,000 and it's not going to change your life. So if you win the tournament, you want to win, you're doing it for yourself; if you win the tournament, you want to win because you deserve to win and you shouldn't cheat anyone else.
What's your fastest time?
Will Shortz: I'm a pretty good solver, but I'm not like Tyler, or any of those other people. I think if I were in the tournament, I'd fall in the middle somewhere. Among the public as a whole, I'm probably a genius, but in the context of these people, I'm average, and I like that, actually.
So what do you think of all these people who can finish the times in 2 minutes way before you?
Will Shortz: I can't; Well, the top solvers have extremely fast minds, their minds just word faster than mine and I'm just happy with that. I think I have a good mind and I have no problem with people being smarter than me. And of course, they know so much; everything that comes into their minds, it just sticks there. They're a nice bunch of people to hang out with because they're interesting, they have flexible minds, they know a lot; it's just a good group to hang out with.
It's shown making the puzzles by hand; are computers frowned upon?
Will Shortz: A computer can make a bad crossword; a computer can only make what it has, first of all. Yes, there are programs that can make crosswords and there are some news stand crosswords that make puzzles that way where you can press a button and the computer will spit out the clues and the puzzle right there on the page and it can make an entire magazine in seconds. Those crosswords are not very good; there's no theme to them, obviously. The computer doesn't have the discrimination to know what's an interesting answer and what's a less interesting answer, what's obscure and what's not obscure. And, of course, a computer cannot write an original clue for an answer; only a human can do that. There are lots of New York Times contributors who use computers now in construction, but it's more as assistance, rather than making a whole puzzle. The computer will tell you possibilities for an answer; if you've got a 3rd letter 'L' and a 5th letter 'P' in a six letter answer, the computer can tell you all the possibilities in its database. It can even suggest corners for you; if the constructor is having problems filling in the corner, the computer can suggest something for you. And you can say, 'Yeah, I do like that, or 'No, I don't like that,' because of 'this' or 'that' and the computer can give you other suggestions for something else. There's a friend of mine, an associate of mine, who's been creating puzzles for years; he's got a program for them and he has spent years improving the vocabulary in the computer's database full of words, fresh words - faces and names that aren't in any reference work. But he has typed them in through his computer for crossword construction. He has also rated every word in his database from 10-1 based on its desirability in a crossword with his judgment. And if he can make a puzzle with only words 8 and higher, that's going to be good cause it's only familiar stuff. And if the computer can't fill in a section, he'll go down to 7, or maybe he'll use a 6 word. So a lot of people are using computer assistance, but it's only assistance; the computer isn't making the puzzle for you and there's still a lot of human involvement in there anyway.
Check out Wordplay in Los Angeles and New York theaters June 16th and other cities in the coming weeks.