Thursday, September 21, 2006


This is a really great movie playing at City Cinema this week (trailer: Link.), it's one of those documentaries about a little thing that some people take to the absolute extreme and you watch and think and see that this really isn't such a little thing after all.

The film follows three different threads, and takes three different perspectives: the puzzle makers who construct crossword puzzles, with Will Shortz from the New York Times' crossword puzzle being the central figure of the film, some celebrities like Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton and Mike Mussina (pitcher for the New York Yankees), talking about their own love for crossword puzzles, with shots of each of them solving clues and going through the same puzzle in their own way, and the third group are the real experts, the ones who can solve a NYT puzzle in under three minutes, and the annual tournament that they attend.

My favourite part of the film was watching Will Shortz construct a puzzle, picking a themeand deciding what the the 'big words' should be to anchor the puzzle, and how to disguise the theme a little bit by making the words be part of larger words that didn't have to do with the theme itself. Then he had to make those big words fit into a symmetrical diagram, and look for potential danger areas where there were too many consonants or vowels in a row in a certain area. Then there was the entirely separate matter of coming up with clues for each of the words, trying to be clever and incorporate puns, which is an entirely different task than the mathematical fitting of words into diagrams. Also the level of difficulty had to be consistent, either easy for a Monday puzzle or ridiculous for a Friday one.

The tournament was wonderful to watch because the participants were all of the most ordinary-looking individuals, but exactly the kind of smart, witty people you would want to hang out with. (In fact the female crossword champion, Ellen Ripstein, has likely replaced Tina Fey in my head as the image of nerd-girl goddesshood I'd want to marry.)

A few years ago there was a documentary about championship Scrabble players called Word Wars, which followed a similar format to the tournament portion of this movie, in the way it followed the top potential winners and got each person's story as they progressed through the tournament to the final round. What I noticed was that crossword players seemed to be more my kind of people, as it were. The scrabble players seemed more detached, pure math-wizzes or savants or Koreans who couldn't speak English but who memorized the official Scrabble dictionary cover-to-cover and could play and win. The crossword players, on the other hand, had to interpret subtle allusions and discover inter-related words across the puzzle and make all sorts of esoteric higher-level connections and get inside the mind of the puzzle creator. By contrast, the Scrabble players' task was to robotically find the best word from each selection of letters given to them. I don't know if it's been proven or not, but I'm sure a computer could play a very competitive if not dominating game of Scrabble, but if you set a computer at solving a crossword puzzle, the puzzle maker could simply make 1-across be 2 possible words, with the clue being very obvious to a human and baffling to an AI, and the computer would happily put comibnations of letters together so they fit and come up with a perfectly valid but entirely wrong answer.

This is what's great about crosswords, they combine an acumen for puzzles and the need for vast amounts of trivia knowledge to be able to solve quickly, not to mention the ability to follow the puzzle creator's dance of wordplay and sneakiness. So the crossword players just seemed to be more interesting -- more engaging people than the Scrabble champions.

For nearly a year I would play the Boston Globe's crossword puzzle online every morning, mostly as a way to kill time. I liked it because there was always a baseball question or two and it seemed to mesh with the things I knew and I was usually able to solve it in under 20 minutes. It became less of a time waster as I went on, as I actually did get a lot better at doing the things, but watching someone solve a puzzle in 3 or 4 minutes is something else entirely to behold. That certain crossroads between mathematical and analytical ability combining with knowledge of the world and literature and grammar and language that really makes you feel like the engines of your mind are finally firing on all cylinders. When my sister can simply say '11 letters - to echo' and one can instantly say, with utter certainty, 'reverborate' while someone else looks on, is truly a thrill. And to see that thrill of solving a puzzle and showing off how much you know at the same time be shared by such amazing, interesting people in this film, was a truly wonderful journey in vicarious pleasure.

By al - 11:43 p.m. |

"...they combine an acumen for puzzles and the need for vast amounts of trivia knowledge to be able to solve quickly..."
and that is exactly why i suck so bad at crosswords, yet love them so much. i adore puzzles, but have very little "trivia" type knowledge.
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