Whether you consider it a pastime, a quiet weekend diversion or an all out addiction, the New York Times crossword puzzle is a mainstay for countless readers across the country. And the man behind those intriguing, sometimes frustrating, brainteasers is Will Shortz, the world's only academically accredited enigmatologist (someone who studies and writes mathematical, word or logic puzzles) who graduated from Indiana University.
Assuming the editorial responsibility in 1993, Shortz works out of a book-lined office where he collaborates with puzzle creators to generate daily crosswords for the paper's subscribers. His objective is to provide thought-provoking games of varying difficulty that incorporate current themes, famous names and pop culture among the clues. Annually, he also hosts the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held in Stamford, Conn. The competition draws together serious solvers for an intense weekend of challenges. Finally, Shortz is the central figure in Director Patrick Creadon's documentary, Wordplay.
While unraveling a crossword might not appear to be the stuff of movies, Shortz and the other individuals in the film turn this fill-in-the-box activity into a spectator sport of sorts. At the 28th annual meet, the conference center is filled with past winners intent on reclaiming their title. The former champions include Trip Payne, a professional crossword constructor and three-time winner who is cheered on by his partner Brian Dominy; Ellen Ripstein, a baton twirler, word game researcher and one-time winner, and Jon Delfin, a professional piano player and seven-time winner. Amongst the roomful of other participants bent on ousting the leading contenders is Al Sanders, a consistent third-place finisher and up-and-comer Tyler Hinman, the 20-year-old university student vying for a chance at being a finalist.
However, the film doesn't focus solely on the weekend competition. Audiences also meet a spectrum of wordplay buffs including former politicians Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, TV host Jon Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns and Major League pitcher Mike Mussina who talk about their passion for the puzzles. As well, the movie contains some historical background about the development of the crossword and provides interesting insights into the puzzle making process. By creatively highlighting parts of the game grid during the tense moments of the competition, viewers get a chance to play along with the contestants.
Yet, it's soon evident that the real test of a crossworders' confidence depends on whether they use a pencil or pen. While the movie has sparked a renewed interest in crosswords around our house, I'll admit we still employ pencils when it comes to Wordplay.