The thrill of crosswords

In mulling over and solving clues, enthusiasts often find answers in a puzzling world.

Close-up of a pencil and a pair of eyeglasses on a crossword puzzle (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Close-up of a pencil and a pair of eyeglasses on a crossword puzzle
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
"It is a fact universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a new crossword puzzle must be in want of a pencil.”
A quote from Jane Austen that has been tampered with is as appropriate a take-off point for a discussion about crosswords as any other topic, because in the “puzzling world,” all information is relevant – and every word or phrase is likely to be tinkered with.
The famed writer, who died in 1817, predated the age of crosswords by nearly a century, yet a myriad of Austen-related clues can be found in puzzles; there are even entire Austen-themed puzzles.
However, this could be said about virtually every other imaginable topic.
Crossword aficionados evidence much pride (without prejudice) in their solving prowess, and interest in the puzzling world runs broad and deep.
Experts estimate that as many as a million people may solve The New York Times crossword puzzle on any given day. More than 200,000 subscribers to the paper’s Internet crossword service generate $8 million for the paper annually, and it nets significant additional revenues (and enthusiasts) through syndication of its puzzles to more than 300 newspapers worldwide, including The Jerusalem Post.
The prestigious Times crossword is but one of the many options available to puzzle-solvers. Newspapers, crossword books (some of which attain best-seller status), magazines and online offerings bring pleasure to tens of millions of enthusiasts every day.
WHY PEOPLE are so passionate about crosswords is a subject tackled by universities and leading publications, such as New Scientist and Psychology Today.
Crosswords activate many cognitive aspects of our minds, such as memory search, methodical problem-solving, language, intuition and willpower – as well as getting inside the mind of another (in this case, the crossword creator).
People like the challenge and fun of all kinds of games and puzzles, but crosswords have unique attractions and rewards. It is significant that computers can generate and solve puzzles like word searches and Sudokus, but only humans can create and solve themed crosswords.
The ability to do crosswords is considered a reflection of one’s intelligence and capabilities. In a seminal scene in the 2014 movie The Imitation Game about cracking the “unbreakable” Nazi Enigma code, the sole test that Alan Turing gave to aspirants hoping to join his team was to solve the cryptic Daily Telegraph crossword within a strict time limit. The successful result of his crossword- based method of personnel recruitment saved countless lives and turned the tide of the war.
It has been suggested that solving crossword puzzles, by exercising the mind, can help hone one’s intelligence, maintain one’s mental acuity into old age and even, to a degree, delay the onset of some of the effects of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“After a certain age, people have to do something with their brain within the first hour after they get up,” Ruth Beloff, a sub-editor and contributing writer at the Post, recently learned. “When I get up, I can’t do anything until I do my morning crossword puzzle. It stimulates me; I look forward to it.”
Beloff, who has been doing crosswords since her youth, particularly favors cryptic clues. She gives two examples: Clue: They fight with each other.
Expected possible answers: SIBLINGS, ENEMIES. Actual answer: ALLIES! Why allies? Because of the word “with.”
They fight with each other, not against.
Clue: Confirms what Goldilocks found: Answer: BEARS OUT – with two relevant meanings (“bears out” also means “confirms”).
Beloff’s final word on doing crosswords: “It’s just so gratifying. It’s addictive. It’s a real high – engaging, engrossing, enriching.”
Now in her 90th year, Post reader Annabelle Yuval may be living proof of the therapeutic value of daily puzzle- solving. Possibly this paper’s alltime longest subscriber (since she made aliya from Queens in 1952), she says, “I enjoy doing crossword puzzles. It stimulates my thinking. I try to solve them every day – although sometimes they are harder and I use a dictionary.”
Octogenarian Jerusalem resident Leah Stoller agrees. Stoller, one of the capital’s leading theater directors, has been doing the puzzles since age 14, when her crossword “addict” father first initiated her into the puzzling world in 1943. Father and daughter bonded over The New York Times Sunday puzzles, solving them together. For years, whether at home or traveling anywhere in the world, she “would go to any length to obtain a newspaper, skipping past the news and features and flipping first to the puzzle page.” To this day, she tries never to miss one.
Like Beloff, Stoller relates that the first thing she does in the morning, even before eating and washing, is to start solving the crossword. Is the passion for puzzles environmental or genetic? The jury is out. Although Stoller inherited the bug from her father, neither her husband nor her children and grandchildren have evidenced the slightest interest in following suit. Beloff and Yuval are also the only ones in their families who solve puzzles.
ONE OF the most revered and legendary names in the puzzling world is Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor for the Times, who has been constructing and selling crosswords since boyhood. In a 2008 article in the Deseret News, Shortz theorizes why so many people are obsessed with crosswords: “Nature abhors a vacuum. You see that empty black-and-white grid, and you want to start filling it in.
“There are no perfect solutions to [the problems we face every day], so we muddle through them the best we can. But with a crossword puzzle, when you fill in that last square, you have reached perfection. That’s a rare and very satisfying feeling.”
One measure of the popularity of crosswords in the Post and the degree of involvement of those who solve them is reader feedback, says Steve Linde, Post editor-in-chief.
“The three things that elicit the most reader response, if we make an error involving them, are: Shabbat times, TV listings, and crosswords and their solutions. Obviously, we make a supreme effort to avoid ever giving readers cause to react in any of these areas.”
David Brinn, the paper’s managing editor, confirms that reader demand for crosswords is significant.
“Puzzles are an integral part of the paper. We publish crossword puzzles because people love doing them, and it is one of the reasons why people buy the newspaper and subscribe to it. One of the advantages to having puzzles printed in the paper is that you can sit with them, cross things out.”
Brinn relates that he has extensive family and firsthand experience with crosswords.
“My mother did puzzles until her dying day at age 88 – it helped keep her mind sharp – and my wife and I look forward to the Monday Jerusalem Post every week because we do The New York Times crossword puzzle together. It sometimes takes us all week, until the next Monday, and even then we don’t always finish it. We leave it on the table and every day we do a little more, together or separately.”
TO MEET the needs and interests of the puzzle-solving public, the Post prints crosswords from a variety of sources: The New York Times, the Telegraph and original puzzles created by Yoni Glatt.
Glatt, a synagogue youth director, teacher and executive director of a charity that conducts tours that integrate special-needs teens (mostly on the autism spectrum) with mainstream peers, has enjoyed solving crosswords since his school days, and has been constructing them professionally since 2007.
The puzzles he creates for the Post are distinguished by their Jewish themes, and the majority of the clues are related to Judaism or Israel – including Jewish pop culture and current events.
Syndicated to more than two dozen Jewish newspapers around the world, it is estimated that Glatt’s Post puzzles are solved by thousands of enthusiasts a week, including pupils in his classroom.
“One of my students has gotten very into crosswords,” he reveals. “It was quite a bizarre and hilarious moment when I noticed he was doing other work in my class once and it turned out to be one of my puzzles! Though I suspect he may have wanted to get caught....”
Jacob Hellman, a University of Wisconsin- Madison teaching assistant and PhD student who served as a dramaturge of a Jerusalem theater group in 2009-2010, is a high-ranking New York Times crossword solver. A subscriber to the paper’s online service whose solving times are monitored and posted, he has solved a Sunday puzzle in less than 20 minutes – a mind-blowing speed that ranks him in the rarefied atmosphere of the top 10 percent of all competitors in the world.
“Crossword puzzles are great for one’s mental health,” the crossword whiz recently told the Post. “Taking the time in the morning to log onto the NYT crossword puzzle website and spend the next 10 to 20 minutes doing a task that you can start and finish provides you with a sense of control over the rest of your day. It’s a crazy world we live in, whether politically or just through having so much work to do.
To me, crossword puzzles provide a sense of normalcy.” For those of us without Hellman-like solving powers – who get cross-eyed just looking at crosswords – the Internet is always temptingly at hand. Purists may consider it cheating, but when you crave arcane knowledge needed to fill in mind-stumping blank squares – from short factual items such as “Dole’s 1996 running mate” (four letters – KEMP) to longer themed clues such as “Halloween costume for a CNN anchor?” (15 letters – WEREWOLF BLITZER) – it is a comfort to know that frustration can be forestalled.
You can get answers immediately, on demand.
Even if you are a crossword novice, you, too, can become a denizen of the puzzling world. Open this magazine to the puzzle page, grab a pencil and get started.
Best to do it with a loved one – and may you have the fortune and strength to still be going strong into your 90s and beyond.

Puzzling it out
In Jerusalem sat down with Beit Shemesh resident Yaakov BenDavid, one of Israel’s foremost cruciverbalists (constructor of crosswords), whose work is published in leading publications worldwide How long have you been interested in crossword puzzles? What sparked your interest? As a young teen I liked Dell puzzle books that had all sorts of word puzzles, including crosswords. I did the New York Magazine weekly crossword puzzle through my teenage years and started doing The New York Times puzzles in my early 20s.
When did you start creating your own puzzles? Where do your puzzles appear? In 2006 my mother-in-law bought me the 2006 Wordplay documentary companion book with a chapter called “How to Construct a Crossword.” My first professional puzzles ran in a local magazine called Connections.
Thinking I was ready for prime time, I sent a puzzle to The New York Times. While rejecting it, Will Shortz, recognizing me as a first-timer, pointed out the various problems. I took the criticism to heart and submitted one every few months.
My first 12 submissions to the The New York Times were rejected.
The reason was always that Will didn’t like the puzzle’s theme. Something technically wrong with the puzzle could be fixed, but if the theme didn’t “tickle his funny bone,” nothing could be done.
I was able to “flip” most of the puzzles to other publishers.
Finally, in 2010, two of my puzzles were accepted within 24 hours by the The New York Times; I have published several since.
My puzzles have also appeared in Simon & Schuster crossword puzzle books, Penguin Classics crosswords, the New York Sun, The Wall Street Journal and others – including The Jerusalem Post.
What are the most challenging things about creating puzzles? What is unique about your puzzles? Most challenging is fitting a full set of theme answers into a grid that allows for the “fill” to be fresh, avoiding using the “crutches” that mark a weak puzzle. The crutches are things like obscure words, abbreviations, partials (a partial phrase that can’t stand alone, and is clued like: “___ customer” with the answer ONE TO A).
Other crutches are “crosswordese” words that are overused because they have a convenient series of letters, like EERO (architect Saarinen), MTAPO (Philippine peak), Latin words (AMAT), athletes’ names like 1930s baseball player Mel OTT.
Also challenging is to come up with fresh clues.
I think my theme answers are often clever and sometimes downright funny. I got feedback from Will Shortz that he liked my sense of humor, which was nice to hear.
Where do you get your inspiration from? Often inspiration comes from spotting a word or a phrase and realizing that reversing two words or dropping a letter or replacing a letter could be clever. Or, without making a change, a phrase could be understood to be something else entirely because the same word can have two or more meanings.
Do you get feedback from your fans? I have had some nice and heimish feedback from solvers in the comments section of crossword blogs.
For example, when one of my New York Times puzzles ran on the day of the Israel Parade in New York, I got the following: “I liked the ‘Jewishness’ of the puzzle today, which marked the annual NYC Celebrate Israel parade. Very appropriate, Mr. BenDavid!” The Jewish words/clues included: BARAK, YENTE, EDOM, SARAH and ONYXES (biblical breastplate stones).
While many solvers comment “Awesome puzzle,” there are others who say “meh.”
Why do you think people like crossword puzzles? How would you compare crosswords to other types of puzzles in newspapers? All puzzles are fun and good for brain exercise. Unlike pure logic puzzles like Sudoku or word puzzles, crosswords are a conversation between the constructor and the solver. I want the solvers to complete the puzzle, but on the way I want to challenge them, surprise them, make them laugh.
Will Shortz calls the discovery by a solver of the crossword’s theme an “Aha! moment,” and the bigger the “Aha,” the more enjoyment for the solver. The title of the puzzle only hints at the wordplay that is planted in the puzzle’s theme answers, and the discovery of the theme is a major milestone in solving the puzzle. There still might be a long way to go, and each of the theme’s answers can evoke a small Aha or chuckle.
Crosswords are also different because the same puzzle will have a combination of harder and easier clues. You want a few easier clues to help the solver get a foothold. Then the harder clues get a little easier because the words that are filled in so far provide a letter or two of the hard clue’s answer. You can solve 100 percent of a crossword even if you answer only 50 percent of the clues.
I like to call the process of creating a puzzle “creativity under constraints.” This may apply to many different professions – architecture, journalism, teaching, software development – but it is a big part of successfully creating something fun and challenging in that 21 by 21 grid.
What are some of your all-time puzzle favorites: themes and/or even specific clues/answers? I’ve had a few themes that I never saw anywhere else, such as “offensive” responses that were natural, given the question (puzzle title: No Offense Intended). For example: How can I see more of the area’s wildlife? TAKE A HIKE How do I stop this under-sink leak? SHUT YOUR TRAP Why is it so difficult for me to solve this case? YOU’RE CLUELESS Based on the phrase “A cobbler’s children go barefoot,” I expanded the genre. For example: A door-hanger’s children BECOME UNHINGED A pianist’s children MISPLACE THEIR KEYS A surgeon’s children DON’T MAKE THE CUT One puzzle where I changed the letter F to D in the theme had the following clue/answer: She’ll make you a cheesecake that you can’t refuse: DAIRY GODMOTHER Do you create not-for-publishing puzzles? I derive satisfaction from personalized puzzles.
I wrote one for a friend’s mother, an artist, who has survived five different types of cancer, and who solves The New York Times crosswords on a daily basis.
The puzzle answers contained the materials that she uses as an artist, her name and her husband’s, her home town, references to her family’s hobbies and professions, the cancers and procedures she has survived. The framed filled-in puzzle hangs in her home.
My friend’s mother purposely solved the puzzle over a few days, because, she said, “she didn’t want the fun to stop.”