Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Project Done—1942 through 1951 Puzzles Up, Next Steps, and "Moving Forward" Metapuzzle

Project Update

Big news:  Thanks to Jim Horne, the 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, and 1951 proofread puzzles are up on XWord Info, which means all the available pre-Shortzian puzzles are now there and the project is essentially done—appropriately enough, on Will Shortz's birthday!  Happy Birthday, Will!

I still can't believe we were able to accomplish this feat in just four years (or three years, two months since the project's official start).  I'd like to extend a huge thank-you to everyone in the crossword community who helped me accomplish my dream of having all the pre-Shortzian puzzles in a digital format—there's no way this could have happened without all your continuous time, support, and motivation.  As a community, we've accomplished something that each of us individually would have dismissed as too challenging and unrealistic, which I think is very special.  We've created a resource that will entertain curious minds for years to come, change the way we look at the history of crosswords (and maybe even history itself), and ensure that the names of the exceptionally prolific pre-Shortzian constructors won't just be footnotes in puzzle history.  We can now learn lessons from generations of earlier constructors, and we just might find a handful of usable entries for our own puzzles that were previously lost to time.  And even if most of the uniquely pre-Shortzian entries are too obscure, it can't hurt to have an extra 52 years of clues to draw from!  The uses for the database we've created are only limited by the creativity of the crossword and puzzle community, which I'm convinced is boundless.  But perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project is that a whole world of possibilities can become reality through teamwork.  If an impractical high school freshman can watch his dream come true one step at a time over the course of four years, who knows what else can be accomplished?

I'd like to take a moment to thank all the litzers again, especially Mark Diehl, Barry Haldiman, Nancy Kavanaugh, Jeffrey Krasnick, Denny Baker, Howard Barkin, and Ralph Bunker, who were the most prolific.  Their totals, along with the totals for all the other litzers, can be seen on the Litzer & Proofreader Totals page.  (Some of these totals were slightly revised recently after I recalculated them from my current spreadsheet.)

Thanks, too, to all the proofreaders, of whom there were far fewer.  Proofreading was less appealing to many people, but it was an essential part of this process.  I didn't keep a running total of the proofreaders' totals while the proofing was under way because I didn't want people to compete with each other and race through the puzzles.  I calculated those totals recently, though, and you can now view them at the bottom of the Litzer & Proofreader Totals page, underneath the "found mistakes" tallies.

Special thanks to Mark Diehl, who was not only the Litzing King but also the Proofreading King!  Even more amazing, Mark's old-school litzing by hand beat out more technologically advanced (and very impressive!) optical character recognition litzing methods—congratulations again, Mark!

Thanks, too, to Todd Gross, not only for his litzing and proofreading but also for his painstaking research on pre-Shortzian constructors.  Todd's findings have been a major feature of numerous posts and added a richness to what might otherwise be just a list of constructor names.

Along the same lines, I'd like to thank all the pre-Shortzian constructors—and friends and relatives of constructors, or simply crossword aficionados—who provided interviews or sent in reminiscences of, or memorabilia from, pre-Shortzian constructors and times.  These have been delightfully entertaining and informative, and I hope to add new ones in the future.

Special thanks, too, to Barry Haldiman, who gave me the puzzles he and various other people, including project litzer and proofreader Denny Baker, had begun litzing back in 1999.  These puzzles got the project off to a running start—thanks again, Barry!  Barry also provided much historical context for the litzing and helped tremendously in tracking down copies of puzzles missing from ProQuest on good old-fashioned microfiche.

A few other people have offered to help search for the missing puzzles, contacting libraries and even the Times itself to that end.  Even though none of these efforts has proved successful so far, they've been great starts and helped rule out a number of formerly promising possible sources—thanks again to all the puzzle detectives!

I'd also like to thank everyone who's made a financial donation to the project.  Jim Horne was the first, generously giving the project a month of his XWord Info donations, and in the past few years several other people have contributed as well.  These donations have been much appreciated and helped pay for prizes and other expenses.

A few people have also helped by donating old books and newsletters, which have been exceptionally useful—thanks so much again!  I'm still making my way through the newsletters, and I'm always on the lookout for more old books containing the pre-Shortzian daily New York Times puzzles with bylines.  I'll be updating the Pre-Shortzian Crossword Books page as soon as time permits, but suffice it to say I'm still missing many of these old volumes, some of which may be the only way we can identify the remaining anonymous constructors.

I'd also like to thank the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project Advisory Board members, Jim Horne, Stan Newman, and Will Shortz.  They've been incredibly helpful over the past few years, and I think it's fair to say that without them, the project simply would not have taken off.  Thanks, Jim, for being the best partner in all this that anyone could ever want—XWord Info is a masterpiece, and I'm honored that I've been able to contribute to it in a significant way.  Thanks, Stan, for the hundreds of books, newsletters, and, most important, your encyclopedic knowledge and memory of the pre-Shortzian era and people—you've been a tremendous support (not to mention a delightful lunch companion!).  And thanks, Will, for being so generous with your time and advice and allowing me to hunt through your treasure trove of crossword books for constructor names—you are not only the Puzzlemaster but an inspiration, and I hope the project's completion makes your birthday an especially memorable one!

Finally, I'd like to give a shoutout to Kristena Bergen (aka my mom, Karen Steinberg).  If I wrote about everything she's done to help with the project, Blogger would likely implode, because there would simply be too much!  In addition to helping with the PDF downloading, puzzle-packet assembling, litzing, and proofreading, she spent countless hours just helping to keep track of everything, pitching in wherever and whenever needed, and making a final pass through almost all the available pre-Shortzian puzzles before I sent them to XWord Info.  Mom never took credit for any of the work she did, but without her this project never would have gotten as far as it did so quickly.  On behalf of us all, I'd like to give her a virtual round of applause with a standing ovation!  My mom is my hero, and if I can grow up to be a fraction of the person she is, I'll consider myself even more fortunate than I already am.  I love you, Mom—it is truly an honor to be your son!

Next Steps

Now that there are no more puzzles left to litz, proofread, or look through before sending to XWord Info, you might be wondering what's next for this project.  As I mentioned in a previous post, many tasks still remain.  First, the rest of the PS Notes from our litzers and proofreaders need to be entered onto XWord Info.  I'll be working on that over these next couple of weeks before heading off to college.  Second, the constructor names on XWord Info need to be standardized and, in some cases, updated.  When I was doing research at Will's house last summer, I was able to find the first names of many constructors for whom the only identifying information we had was a last name or a pair of initials.  I entered all this data into my spreadsheet but didn't make changes to the actual puzzle files because they were already up on XWord Info and because the focus was on finishing the rest of the puzzles.  As for the standardization, Jim Horne has pointed out a number of instances in which the spelling of constructors' names has been inconsistent.  Some of the incorrect spellings are simply oversights, but in most cases, different sources (i.e., the Times itself and books of reprinted puzzles) used slight name variations.  For example, it's clear that Marian Moeser and Marion Moeser were the same person, yet 22 puzzles are listed on Marian's XWord Info page and 15 on Marion's.  When time permits, I'll also be posting information on the project's style guide and editorial decisions, which will clarify how words and punctuation were usually handled.  Finally, I'm going to keep trying to hunt down the missing puzzles.  I haven't had a lot of success recently, but I haven't lost hope yet!

"Moving Forward" Metapuzzle

Last but not least, to celebrate the final major milestone of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, I constructed another 23x23 metapuzzle, "Moving Forward."  The puzzle, in either Across Lite or PDF format, will be available on XWord Info at 2:00 p.m. Pacific time today from a link I'll insert here——and also post on Twitter, Facebook, and Cruciverb.  Very important instructions will appear in a notepad in the Across Lite file, so read carefully!  Send your answer to preshortzianpuzzleproject at gmail dot com (using the standard format).  The deadline for submitting your solution is September 2 at 2:00 p.m. Pacific time.  You may only submit one answer, so be sure you're 100% happy with your answer before clicking "Send"!  One lucky winner will be chosen at random from the correct solutions.  That person will receive a $50 iTunes gift card courtesy of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project!  Even though only one solver will receive a prize, everyone who submits a correct answer will have his/her name listed in a wrap-up blog post (unless you tell me you'd rather not have your name appear).  Names will be listed in the order in which the correct solutions came in.  Have fun—and good luck!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

In Memoriam: Merl Reagle, 1950–2015

Merl Reagle—an inspiration, friend, and crossword legend in the pre-Shortzian and Shortz eras—died unexpectedly today at the age of 65.

My first introduction to Merl was in the movie Wordplay, which I originally saw when I was ten.  It was amazing watching him construct a puzzle by hand, and I couldn't wait to build one myself!  I presented what was probably my very first crossword as my fifth-grade "affinity project" and in the upper lefthand corner wrote:  "Source of information:  Wordplay movie."

Four and a half years later, I met Merl in person at the 2012 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which was my first ACPT.  He was so nice—even though he was a huge crossword celebrity, he was still excited to talk to me about everything crosswords!  I remember buying one of Merl's books that year, which he inscribed "To David—No speed solving!"  He made a mini-crossword out of BEST/WISHES and then graced the book with his signature.  Merl's crossing of BEST and WISHES inspired me to autograph things in a similar way:  by crossing DAVID and STEINBERG at the I.  I've seen Merl at many other tournaments since then, and it's hard to envision a tournament without him.  I always went up to Merl each time to tell him which crossings in his tournament puzzles gave me fits, and he would just laugh and tell me to keep solving!

Merl and me at the 2012 ACPT.

But perhaps my clearest memory of Merl was at a lunch we had when he came to give a talk Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.  I had a Latin convention the day of his talk and so couldn't go see him (though luckily my parents went and recorded the entire thing for me!), but we arranged to meet at Louise's Trattoria, one of his favorite restaurants in the Larchmont Village area.  I was thrilled to have a chance to sit down with him and trade stories about the pre-Shortzian era, constructors, editors, and the future of crosswords.  Always entertaining, Merl didn't pull any punches about anything and told me he hated the project's name, which he felt should have been something like "The Early New York Times Crossword Project"!  It was an absolutely delightful couple of hours, and he told me to come have lunch with him again if I was ever in Florida—"any place, any time!"  At the end of the meal, we had an anagram face-off—if my memory serves me correctly, we were pretty even, until I somehow managed to stump him at the end.  On the way back to our cars, we passed a street called Lucerne, so I challenged Merl to anagram LUCERNE + A . . . and finally got him!  That said, Merl is and always will be the anagram master, and I'm sure he would've stumped me many times over if we'd continued playing.

Me and Merl at Louise's Trattoria in 2013.

In addition to being an incredible wit, Merl was also one of the kindest people I've ever met.  He went out of his way to congratulate me about several of my New York Times and Los Angeles Times crosswords—it was always such a thrill to receive an e-mail from him!

I'm going to miss you a lot, Merl.  And I hope wherever you are now has a large supply of graph paper!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

1953 and 1952 Puzzles Up, Todd Gross on Betty Jorgensen and William J. Yskamp, and XWord Info Powwow

Project Update

Great news:  Even though it's been a very busy travel month, the 1953 and 1952 puzzles are now up on XWord Info, thanks to Jim Horne!  Only one more complete year—1951—before we get into Sunday-only puzzles, which means I should be able to make faster progress getting them ready.  I'm still hoping to have all of them done by the end of the summer (which, luckily for me, goes until mid-September!).

Todd Gross on Betty Jorgensen and William J. Yskamp

Betty Jorgensen

I've been meaning to catch up on some more of Todd Gross's great research into pre-Shortzian constructors, starting off with his findings on Betty Jorgensen.  Betty published 69 puzzles in the Times under Eugene T. Maleska and 8 during the Shortz era.  Todd writes:

In my never-ending search for pre-Shortzian constructors, I decided to try looking up Betty Jorgensen.  An S&S puzzle of hers mentions Oregon, so I used that to try and find her.

Well, I found a Betty Jorgensen in Portland, born in 1919 and passed away 2008.  I was able to find her obituary on the Oregonian web site....

Alas, the obit made no mention of crosswords, which is odd considering how many she published.  So I can't be sure I have the right person.  I've found other Betty Jorgensens, but they aren't in Oregon and don't seem to be good candidates.  I have found out a fair amount about this Betty Jorgensen...but, again, nothing tying her to crosswords.  But she wrote poetry, which seems fitting.

I agreed with Todd that this may not have been the right person, because her crossword activity would almost certainly have been mentioned in an obituary.  So I decided to hunt around some more and found a link to Betty Jorgensen and crosswords in Eugene, Oregon.  I then Googled Betty Jorgensen and Eugene, Oregon, and found a recent obituary for a Robert DuBois Jorgensen, who was survived by various relatives, including a daughter, Laura Anne, who lives in Eugene and his mother, "Mary Elizabeth 'Betty' Jorgensen"; his father was also named Robert.  After a couple of other searches that didn't lead to anything, I Googled Robert Jorgensen and Betty Jorgensen together and found an obituary for a Robert Jorgensen of Monticello, Illinois, who died in 1988 and was survived by his wife, "Mary E. 'Betty' Jorgensen," also of Monticello.  I did a few more searches but didn't find anything more. My guess is that the Betty Jorgensen from Portland was not the crossword constructor but that this "Betty" (really Mary Elizabeth) is and is now living in Monticello, Illinois.  Following up with her granddaughter in Eugene would seem to be the next logical step.

William J. Yskamp

Todd had a more auspicious search with William J. Yskamp, who published three pre-Shortzian Times puzzles.  He reports:

While I haven't found the smoking gun connecting him to crosswords, I feel pretty sure the constructor is William James Yskamp, born in 1930 somewhere in New Jersey and, alas, passed away in 2007 in Oakland, CA.  I haven't seen his obituary, though it looks like I can get a copy from the Oakland Library (for a price).  There are other William Yskamps, but they don't have the J initial and the dates aren't right.

And I found this photo from his high school yearbook that seems to indicate he's the sort of person who could be a successful constructor.

College High School, Montclair, New Jersey, 1948.

What Todd found sounded very promising, and I agreed that this was likely the crossword constructor, so I did some more research.  I found this obituary of William in the April 2008 issue of Colby [College] Magazine:

More Googling led me to an Amanda Yskamp, who is also active in writing and science and is listed by as the co-author of book of short stories for young adults, Suddenly Lost in Words, Volume 2.

I also found a 2003 obituary for a Delia Yskamp that linked all three Yskamps—William was the father of Delia and Amanda (and a third sister, Lis).  So the circumstantial evidence points very strongly to Todd's yearbook find being the right person.  Thanks so much again, Todd, for this fantastic research!

XWord Info Powwow

I've been gone for much of the past month on couple of long driving trips, one to Vancouver for the National Puzzlers' League convention.  On my way there, I passed through Seattle, where I had an awesome lunch with Jim Horne and Jeff Chen (and Jeff's budding cruciverbalist baby daughter, Tess!)!  Here are some photos from this XWord Info culinary powwow:

Me and Jim at Monsoon

Tess, Jeff, Jim, and me

Thanks so much again, Jim and Jeff!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Third Anniversary, All Puzzles Proofread, Missing Puzzles Update, ideacity News, Davidson Young Scholars Summit, and Mark Diehl Seven-Time Blast! Winner

Third Anniversary—All Puzzles Proofread

I'm delighted to announce that today is the third anniversary of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and all the proofread puzzles are now in!  Three years ago I started this blog and opened up the litzing, which I'd begun during my freshman year, to volunteers.  I had a great head start, thanks to the digitizing Barry Haldiman, Denny Baker, and others had already done of their favorite puzzles back in the day, and was able to systematize and massively expand the effort so that, one puzzle at a time, each of the available 16,225 puzzles would be tracked, litzed, and proofread.  And with the help of Jim Horne, creator of the incomparable XWord Info, these puzzles have gradually appeared online, year by year as we worked our way backwards through time, for everyone to enjoy.  Thanks so much again to everyone who's helped with this journey into crossword history!  Without each and every one of you, there's no way we would have come so far so quickly.  Though I still have to look through the remaining years of proofread puzzles before sending them off to XWord Info and do quite a bit of "cleanup" work with constructor names and previously posted puzzles, this is another huge milestone in the project!

Project Update

The final two batches of proofread puzzles came in over the past two weeks—the first on Thursday the 18th from Todd Gross, who sent 13 puzzles in which he'd found 89 mistakes.  (Todd also has a puzzle in today's New York Times, by the way, which he co-constructed with Andrea Carla Michaels and with which he's hit for the cycle—meaning he's now had a puzzle published on every day of the week!  Congratulations, Todd!)  And then on Friday the 26th Patsy Stewart sent in 12 more puzzles, marking the end of the proofreading—at least until the missing puzzles are found!  Thanks so much again, Todd and Patsy!

Missing Puzzles Update

Following up on my recent post about librarian Alan DerKazarian's missing puzzles research, I received two more e-mails from him with additional news.  In the first, he reported that he'd contacted the American Library in Paris and National Library of France about the 1953 New York Times strike papers and received this reply from the former:

Thank you for writing. We do have microfilm of the New York Times from those dates, but the run is quite unusual and prefaced with the following notice on the reel:

Notice: A strike affecting the major New York newspapers made it impossible to publish any editions of the New York Times during the first eight days of December, 1953. 

THE NEW YORK TIMES Book Review dated December 6, which was prepared and printed before the strikewas distributed with the Sunday, December 13th issue. 

At the beginning of this reel, you will find ten two-page papers dated November 29 through December 8. These were prepared day by day during the strike, but published after the strike and distributed as a special section of the Sunday, December 13, edition.

Since the microfilm reader at the American Library in Paris was unable to print and copy, the person who wrote back offered to photograph whatever Alan might want on the reel; Alan asked her if she could look through the two-page papers and send photos of any crosswords.  She found two and sent photos, but unfortunately, they were puzzles we already had.  Below are photos of the newspaper's notices:

Photos courtesy of the American Library in Paris.

Alan had not yet heard back from the National Library of France, and apparently the British libraries, although technically public, require an annual fee in order to use them or ask questions.  He did end up hearing from the National Library of France, though, and in a second e-mail wrote to me that the situation there was the same as at the American Library in Paris.

National Library of France response.

Courtesy of the National Library of France.

So, unfortunately, this is likely a dead end, at least with these nine days of missing puzzles.

I'm planning to be update the complete list of missing puzzles before I head off for Stanford (where, as a student, I may actually be able to access the British libraries), and when I do, I'll post it on this site.  Although we've struck out so far with this select group of missing puzzles, there are many others, some of which are missing not because of strikes but because of ProQuest's errors.  So I'm still hopeful that eventually some, if not all, of the puzzles will be found.  I'll also be putting out another call for those missing old crossword books—again, as soon as I've had a chance to update the list—which I think may be our best bet for locating the missing puzzles, even if we're never able to match up the dates definitively.  In the meantime, thanks so much again, Alan, for these valiant efforts!

Mark Diehl Seven-Time Blast! Winner!

Once more, the amazing Mark Diehl was the first to send in the correct answer to the Blast! challenge—making him a seven-time winner!  Congratulations, Mark!  Shortly after the second letter was revealed—at 8:43 a.m. on Sunday, June 14, to be exact!—Mark sent in the solution to this February 9, 1952, clue:  "Sales of this reached new high in 1951."  The answer:  POPCORN.  I'm not sure why popcorn sales exploded that year, but according to Wikipedia, "[d]uring World War II, sugar rations diminished candy production, and Americans compensated by eating three times as much popcorn as they had before."  So maybe they ramped up that habit even more after the war was over—or maybe the increase came with more people snacking while they watched TV in the 1950s!  Here's an ad from 1952 that links the two activities:

Image courtesy of

Now that I'll be posting on a more occasional basis, I've decided to retire the Blast! feature, so the official champion is Mark Diehl—congratulations again, Mark!

ideacity News

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently gave an ideacity talk in Toronto about crosswords, and part of it was about the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project.  People really seemed to enjoy the speech—I probably had a couple of hundred people come up to me over the course of my amazing three days there asking me more about crosswords and the project, which was very gratifying!  While there I was also interviewed by a reporter from a Russian publication, and another reporter plans to interview me when I'm in Vancouver at the upcoming National Puzzlers' League convention, so I'm hoping to spread the word even further.  (Maybe I should just move to Canada!)  In any case, to see a video of the talk, click here.

Davidson Young Scholars Summit

Just a few days after returning from Toronto, I headed up to Reno, where I'd been invited to be a panelist at the Davidson Young Scholars Summit.  Since the Davidson award I received in 2013 was for the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, that's what I was asked to discuss, and I spent quite a bit of time describing the initial stages of the project, how things had developed, challenges I'd encountered, the project's current status, and what the puzzles might show us in the future.  Having a chance to talk to so many interested students and parents was really gratifying, and I think they appreciated hearing about something as fun as crosswords!

Talking about the project.