Monday, December 14, 2009


John Updike said that life was too short for golf and crossword puzzles, but he played golf and wrote about it, and, I’d bet, worked crosswords, too. As a wordsmith, how could he not?

I used to play golf, and not badly, but stopped when the demands of a young family dictated that I no longer could disappear for the best part of a weekend day. Quitting golf was a lot easier than quitting smoking; once away from it I rarely looked back, and quickly cultivated other recreations that provided actual exercise.

I still do crosswords, though, and wouldn’t think of giving them up. Hey, I’m a wordsmith, too, and a sportswriter at that, and no group is better at synonyms—which is what most crossword answers are-- than we sportswriters. You know, the guy didn’t just pitch the ball, he also threw, heaved, hurled, chucked, tossed, flung, slung, fired, pegged or catapulted it. God forbid that we should use the same word twice in a story.

Fact is, I’m something of a crosswords snob, limiting my application to the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday puzzles in the New York Times and the one in the Wall Street Journal’s Friday Weekend section, which I save for early the next week. The Journal puzzle doesn’t quite match the Times’ offerings; my usual reaction to getting its joke is “oh, no” instead of “aha!” But it gives me something to do on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, days when the Times’ puzzles are beneath my notice.

The reason the Times is superior in this regard is Will Shortz, its crosswords’ editor. A man of all word games, Shortz took over the job in 1993 from Eugene Maleska, and quickly created something of an earthquake in Puzzlerville. Maleska’s products tended to be exercises in arcana, requiring knowledge of Mahler symphonies and the names of rivers in Finland. Shortz is hipper, frequently tapping such contemporary subjects as rap music. I’m pretty much in the dark about rap, but most of its performers’ names are mercifully short.

Shortz doesn’t write the puzzles but his hand can be seen in their clues, which differentiate difficult from easy ones. Difficulty can be added by using deep definitions of words (such as the infamous “gob” for “lot” in one Times puzzle last week), but it’s much more fun when clues are oblique, forcing the puzzler to look at things from odd angles. For instance, the answer to the recent clue “it’s well-positioned” was “oil rig,” and “athletes’ foot applications” was “knee socks.” Cute, huh?

I thought I was pretty good at the activity until I saw the movie “Wordplay” a few years ago. A documentary set at a national crosswords contest, and featuring the great Shortz himself, it introduced me to supernerds (I’m just a regular one) who could whip off a Saturday Times offering (typically the hardest) in something like seven minutes and 40 seconds. It often takes me hours to do one of those. My main strength is doggedness, not brilliance; I’ll keep staring at the darned things until they reveal their secrets. I don’t give up, never ever. Well, almost never.

Like most puzzlers, I have my own rules about what’s kosher and what isn’t in seeking solutions. I think it’s okay to look up an answer in the dictionary if I think I know it but must check its spelling, and to ask for help from someone within the reach of my voice (my wife is especially helpful with answers related to food). But it ain’t okay to phone outside experts, and definitely not to type the clue into the Google search box and hit “enter.” Yeah, I’ve done that a few times, but only in rare instances when I’ve been absolutely, positively stuck. I do it as a last resort, to scratch my curiosity itch, and take no pleasure from the solutions reached thereby.

The best puzzles are the ones where I can fill in only “s’s,” “er’s,” and “ed”s” on first scan, and have to scratch out the rest, box by box. That’s masochistic, I know, but I guess there’s that side of me. I told you I played golf, didn’t I?

ALSO: My 2010 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot arrived last week and I sent it back with eight names checked. They were holdovers Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, Jack Morris, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell, and ballot newcomers Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin and Edgar Martinez. Alomar and Larkin were easy picks; they were the best at their demanding positions for most of their long careers.

My choice of Martinez might raise some eyebrows because he spent most of his career as a designated hitter, and, thus, performed only half of baseball’s requirements. But the DH is a real and apparently permanent baseball role and I can see no reason to discriminate against those who fill it. No one has done it better than the ancient Mariner, a true student of the batsman’s art, who is one of only eight players ever with at least 300 home runs (309), 500 doubles (514) , a lifetime batting average of over .300 (.312), an on-base percentage of over .400 (.418) and a slugging average of more than .500 (.515). And he was a nice guy besides.


Ben said...

Fred, I love the crossword talk. I too am a NYT crossword snob and usually just bang out their puzzle on Friday and Saturday. I'm not a superstar who can solve these in 7 minutes; I finish in 15 to 25 min. depending on the puzzle.

I visited Will Shortz's big crossword tournament last winter in Brooklyn (the one in "Wordplay"), where I had a great time and got to know Will a little bit. A few months later I played in a Chicago tournament, which thanks to Will used the following week's NYT puzzles, and did pretty well. Best of all, in his gig as NPR Weekend Edition Sunday puzzlemaster, Will has since used two puzzles I wrote as weekly listener challenges on the radio.

I wrote about the Chicago tournament here and the radio puzzles here and here. If you like Will Shortz, you might get a kick out of these stories.

Happy Chanukah. See you in March, maybe.

Charley said...

I'm glad to see Dawson has your support! Love to see Raines added to your list.

Andre Dawson for the Hall of Fame

Andrew said...

I'm considering boycotting the Hall of Fame until Ron Santo gets in. I blame Joe Morgan.....not sure why, but it has to be somebody's fault.

Ben said...

When Ryne Sandberg became eligible for the ballot, I remember hearing that Joe Morgan was quietly campaigning against Ryno getting the nod. Apparently Morgan believed that admitting more second basemen into the Hall would dilute his own status as a HOF 2B. I remember feeling this did not speak too well of Morgan, and still feel that way.

Mike Klein said...

Appreciate the vote for Blyleven--would be the first Benelux native in the Hall... :)