Friday, August 1, 2014

East Coast Wrap-Up, August Litzer of the Month Peter Broda, and Greek Entries of the Week

East Coast Puzzle Extravaganza Wrap-Up

I've just returned from an amazing couple of weeks on the East Coast, where I spent four awesome days and nights in Portland, Maine, at MaineCon, the National Puzzlers' League convention!  I had a blast playing Bananagrams and Fluxx at midnight, meeting new NPLers and reuniting with old friends, trying new games such as Cluesome and Paperback, solving a brilliant Extravaganza with an equally brilliant team of runners, and exploring some of Portland's lovely restaurants!  On one of the days, I went to lunch with Stan Newman (a.k.a. Famulus) at a place that served sapid lobster pizza and other seafood treats; when we got back to the hotel, Stan gave me two references books that were used by many pre-Shortzian constructors:  the Longman Crossword Key and Funk & Wagnalls Crossword Puzzle Word Finder.  Both of these tomes are full of possible crossword entries sorted by letter pattern; the main differences are that the Funk & Wagnalls includes 2–6 letter words (whereas the Longman Crossword Key includes 3–15 letter words) and that the Funk & Wagnalls allows you to find words with more than one fixed letter.  The Funk & Wagnalls is particularly interesting since it describes a deliberate process for how words were selected for inclusion in the book, which has definite connections to modern-day word-list scoring.  Thanks again for these neat old references, Stan!

I was also delighted to have lunch in Philadelphia with Bernice Gordon, who has become my "adopted grandmother" of sorts!  She showed me some of her more recent constructions, and we had a lot of fun playing a game called Bookworm on her computer (which can be played online).  Bernice also gave me several beautiful books, a couple of which she bought in England years ago!  My favorite of these books, An Exaltation of Larks, contains the names for different groupings of people and animals, such as "a siege of herons" and "an untruth of summoners."  The book also has lovely illustrations to accompany many of the terms and etymological information about some of the more esoteric ones.  I look forward to looking through Bernice's books in more detail when time frees up and jet lag fully wears off!

I also spent a few days in Pleasantville, New York, where Will Shortz generously made his crossword book and magazine collection available.  Using his complete collection of Simon & Schuster volumes, along with countless other contemporary puzzle books, I was able to identify the first names and/or genders of many more pre-Shortzian constructors.  One of the most interesting discoveries I made was that Horiguchi (whose first name turned out to be Yurie) submitted her crosswords to the Times from Tokyo.  I wonder if English was Yurie Horiguchi's first language—if not, then her ability to construct quality American-style crosswords by hand is even more impressive!  Will also gave me a few extra copies of The Bantam Great Masters Winning Crossword Puzzles series, which has photos and bios of numerous pre-Shortzian constructors, and let me photocopy more extensive bios of certain puzzlers from his Four-Star Puzzler anthology.  I'm planning to scan these in the near future and make them available on Scribd.  Will and his assistant, Joel Fagliano, also gave me a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how New York Times puzzles are selected and edited, although I spent most of my time conducting research.  Thanks so much again for the books and for letting me do some great research, Will!

Finally, right before touring the college renowned in crosswords for calling its students ELIS, I was able to pay a visit to Noah Webster's grave—here's a picture:

Noah Webster's grave in New Haven, CT

Project Update

On the litzing and proofreading front, there was a lot of activity while I was gone!  Thursday the 17th, Alex Vratsanos sent in 1 litzed puzzle.  Saturday the 19th, Todd Gross sent in 11 proofread puzzles.  Sunday the 20th, Nancy Kavanaugh sent in 7 reassigned litzed puzzles, and then early Monday the 21st, an anonymous litzer sent in 4 puzzles.  Later that morning, Denny Baker sent 31 proofread puzzles.  Tuesday the 22nd, Larry Wasser sent in 28 more proofread puzzles.  Saturday the 26th, Martin Herbach sent 7 more litzed puzzles, putting our total at 16,038 on the litzing thermometer!  Sunday the 27th, Denny sent in 29 more proofread puzzles.  Tuesday the 29th, Todd sent in 16 more proofread puzzles.  And over the past couple of weeks, Howard Barkin sent in 31 more proofread puzzles.  Thanks so much, everyone, for all this great work—we're making excellent progress and on track to finishing the litzing by the end of this month!

August Litzer of the Month Peter Broda

Now that we're in August, we have a new Litzer of the Month—Peter Broda!  Peter is a New York Times constructor who hails from Regina in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.  To read more about him, click here or on the Litzer of the Month tab above.

Featured Puzzle

Today's featured puzzle, "Fabrication," was constructed by Diana Sessions; published August 26, 1962; edited by Margaret Farrar; and litzed by Mike Buckley.  This 21 x 21 tour-de-force features 16 symmetrical theme entries that contain a type of fabric, such as WOOL GATHERER (clued as "Idle fancier.").  All the theme entries are elegantly arranged in either stacks of two or, in the center, mind-boggling interlocking webs; to top off the eye-pleasing gridwork, the constructor mostly included theme entries that don't directly tie into the types of fabric they contain!  My favorite theme entry is LAME DUCK ("Act of 1933."), which completely disguises its original fabric, lamé, though FLANNEL CAKE ("Menu item.") and CREPE PAPER ("Party decoration.") are close runners-up.  Cramming in 16 stacked and interlocking theme entries is no easy task, but the constructor made it look like a piece of cake by producing such a consistently smooth fill!  The central entry, SCARFED, is a lovely touch that subtly gets at the theme, and entries like CHARCOAL, CHAPLIN, and WALRUS add a nice bit of zest to this puzzle's 146-word grid.  Speaking of 146 words, I really appreciate that the constructor opted for a word count slightly above the modern New York Times limit of 140 rather than throwing in some lengthy partials and additional obscurities in a more open grid.  I don't see any pairs of black squares that would have been particularly easy to remove, and the grid certainly doesn't feel chunky and sectioned off as a result of the higher word count.  Most of the less-than-stellar entries that did wend their way into the grid appeared in numerous other pre-Shortzian puzzles—the only one that really irks me is BTS ("British titles: Abbr."), but this entry too was used as recently as the Maleska era.  I much prefer the way old Los Angeles Times and Merl Reagle puzzles treated BTS (by cluing it as the abbreviation for boats and beats, respectively).  In all, this is a standout pre-Shortzian puzzle, and I look forward to seeing more from Diana Sessions as I slowly make my way through litzed packets!  Below is the answer grid with highlighted theme entries:

Entries of the Week

The July 22, 1962, crossword, "All Greek to Me" by Jules Arensberg, contained scads of unusual words purportedly from Greek as theme entries.  I've listed an ennead of my favorites below:  
    • Neighbor whose house is on fire.
    • Tightrope walker.
    • Pet names.
    • Imaginary lopsided beast adapted for circling hills.
    • Lean monster that feeds on patient wives.
    • One skilled in table talk.
    • Whoop by slapping hand against mouth.
    • Beard growing.
    • Fear of being stuck with needles.
I knew the word deipnosophist from a previous entry of the week and ucalegon from hearing Will Shortz list it as his favorite word so many times, but the rest of these were new to me.  The two words on this list that intrigued me the most were gyascutus and Chichevache—here are some beautiful pictures of these two imaginary beasts I found on DeviantArt!

Gyascutus image courtesy of DeviantArt

Chichevache image courtesy of DeviantArt

Friday, July 11, 2014

Interview with Jeffrey Wechsler, Jim Horne's Fun Finds and New Pages, and Todd Gross's Reflections

NOTE:  The blog will be on hiatus for the next two weeks (Friday, July 18, and Friday, July 25).  Posts will resume on Friday, August 1.

Interview with Jeffrey Wechsler

This week I'm delighted to present an interview with pre-Shortzian and Shortz-era constructor Jeffrey Wechsler!  Jeffrey recalls publishing three puzzles in the Weng era, though because of missing bylines, only one of them has been identified:  his July 17, 1969, themeless, which I'm featuring in today's post (see below).  This puzzle was published the day after the July 16 Apollo 11 moon mission launch, and since next week marks the 45th anniversary of that launch, I'm especially pleased to be able to publish Jeffrey's interview at such an opportune time!  To read more about Jeffrey and his remarkable return to constructing after a 40-year hiatus, click here or on the Pre-Shortzian Constructor Interviews tab above.

Photo courtesy of

Project Update

I'm also happy to report that this week has been busier on the litzing and proofreading fronts!  Late Sunday night, Todd Gross sent in 10 proofread puzzles.  Tuesday morning, Denny Baker sent 7 reassigned litzed puzzles, putting us at 16,019 on the thermometer.  Wednesday night, Tracy Bennett sent in 31 proofread puzzles.  And early Friday morning, Todd sent in 10 more proofread puzzles.  Thanks so much again, everyone—we're closing in on the end of the 1973 proofreading!

Also, as the note at the top of today's post says, the blog will be on hiatus for the next two weeks.  Litzers and proofreaders can continue to send in and request puzzle packets as usual, though there may be occasional delays in responding.  Among other things, I'll be attending the National Puzzlers' League convention in Maine, which promises to be an awesome four days (and nights!) of nonstop puzzling—I hope to see some of you there!

Jim Horne's Fun Finds and New Pages

Recently I received an e-mail from Jim Horne about some discoveries he'd made while looking through the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project database:
One of the most fun things about PSPP is that it shows many of the common tricks predate Shortz’s stewardship.  Take, for example, one of Jeff Chen’s favorite tricks — repeated answer words.  I added the pre-Shortz puzzles with repeated words here

Some of these are presumably unintentional, like ANON in this one

This one is clearly intentional and shows a fun coincidence.

This one is intentional and has an amazing 53 blocks for no apparent reason.  Nobody seemed to have qualms about Biblical quotes back then—of course everyone would know them!

This one seem unintentional but look!  The answer RESIN appears at 42 Across and at 65 Across, and the word Resin appears in the clue for 56 Down!!!  [Ed. note:  The litzed puzzle Jim was referring to contained a grid mistake; 65-Across  was supposed to have been RESEN.  A corrected copy of the puzzle has been sent to XWord Info.]
Really interesting, Jim—thanks so much for pointing all of these out!

Jim sent me some more observations and updates later:
I created a new page to track pangrams organized by constructor.  It's the first page I've written that is constructor-focused and combines pre-Shortz and Shortz-era constructors.  This is always iffy because the pre-Shortz data is sketchy in some cases, but this one is dramatic enough that I thought it would be interesting. 

I thought I'd mention another observation.  A commenter on Amy's blog mentioned that there was a pre-Shortz double-pangram on a Sunday.  In fact there were three.  (There are no Shortz-era double-pangram Sundays.)

In my pangram pages, I excluded Sundays (because the extra squares makes the feat less impressive) and rebus puzzles (because how do you even count those?).

I've changed that to include Sundays if they are double-pangrams or better.

The two pages on XWord Info show pangram data by date or by constructor (or this one to jump right to the older puzzles).

Thanks so much again, Jim, for all these great pages and observations!

Todd Gross's Reflections

Litzer, proofreader, and researcher/historian Todd Gross took some time recently to reflect on what inspires people to construct crosswords and wrote this thought-provoking piece:
I for one find it really fascinating (and more than a little humbling) how accomplished several constructors have been in other areas of life.  Especially when, like Tanaquil Le Clercq (think someone might use that name in a puzzle some day?—very scrabbly, and splits into two equal parts), it's in an area that would seem totally unrelated to crossword creation.  I'm motivated by trying to figure out the kind of people that would go to all the trouble of learning such an arcane craft that, for most people, doesn't pay well enough to even eke a living at, much less a really good living.  One would think many of these folk would try writing songs or screenplays instead, which can pay much better and give you a much wider sort of fame.

Also, puzzle creation doesn't seem to run much in families.  And, until fairly recently, nearly everyone who created crosswords did so alone, probably most learning their craft from editors' comments (where now there are books and all sorts of possibilities for feedback via the Internet).  So it's a lonely sort of craft, easy to fail at, takes lots of effort, and often offers little in the way of fame or financial reward.  Yet all kinds of folk were still driven to do it.  Not just once or twice to see their name in the paper, but as a kind of ongoing obsession.

In my case, it's a chance for me to use my creative and analytic sides to create something that (if published) may be enjoyed by millions of folk.  That's just amazing to me, as a guy who can't hold even a basic sort of job.  Sinbad the comedian once said that being a comic was really the only thing he could do for a living; I feel kind of similar about puzzles.  I'm lucky I don't need to make a living at this, and really lucky there's a kind of community where I can join with like-minded folk and feel like I belong.  Here in the middle of the desert, not so much.

So I'll keep at this maddening obsession, even putting up with all the rejections I get, as long as I feel there's an audience out there that likes what I make.  And hey, even a little money helps when I can get it.

Sorry I rambled so long, but we folk who are really interested in crossword history are an even more arcane bunch than puzzle creators, methinks.
Thanks again, Todd, for these enGROSSing reflections!

Featured Puzzle

Now for some more about Jeffrey Wechsler's Weng-edited debut puzzle from July 17, 1969!  Even though the puzzle has 48 blocks, which is more than we would typically see nowadays, that Jeffrey was able to keep the word count down to 72 is impressive.  I've seen innumerable themelesses from the '60s with 74, 76, and even 78 words that are chock-full of lively fill and are relatively clean, but it's rare to see these measures of quality in a pre-Shortzian themeless from this time period.  And Jeffrey definitely had (and still has) a knack for crossing fun entries without including too many iffy shorter ones—some of my favorites in this puzzle include HEINOUS, INFERNO, HERE'S TO YOU, MELODRAMA, FAIRIES, and CARAMEL!  The only entry that would probably cause today's solvers to raise an eyebrow is SPET, a piece of primarily pre-Shortzian crosswordese that was traditionally clued as "Small barracuda."  In sum, Jeffrey did an excellent job at constructing a puzzle that stands the test of nearly 50 years!  I hope he'll be able to identify more of his puzzles once they're on XWord Info; for now, though, I'll keep watching for his byline in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times!  Here's the answer grid for today's featured puzzle:

Friday, July 4, 2014

1974 Puzzles Up; Todd Gross on Tanaquil Le Clercq, Irene Smullyan, and Harold T. Bers; July Litzer of the Month Stephen Edward Anderson; and Crossword Talk

Happy 4th of July!  It's been slower going leading up to this holiday weekend, but we've still made good progress, and there's lots of news to report, starting with the puzzles.  On Wednesday morning, Denny Baker sent in 8 reassigned litzed puzzles; then I sent him another one, and late that afternoon, he sent the litzed puzzle back.  Then Friday morning, Nancy Kavanaugh sent in 3 more reassigned puzzles, putting her personal total at exactly 1,200 litzed puzzles (congratulations, Nancy!) and the litzing thermometer at 16,012!  Thanks so much, Denny and Nancy!

In addition, I was able to finish assembling the proofread 1974 puzzles for XWord Info and, thanks to Jim Horne, they're now up!  Click here to see them.  Next week I'll have more on Jim's database discoveries!

Todd Gross's Pearls from the Past 

Tanaquil Le Clercq

Photo courtesy of

Litzer, proofreader, and historian Todd Gross has been very busy recently continuing his research on pre-Shortzian constructors!  He remembered that Tanaquil Le Clercq had been on my original list of constructors whose genders I was seeking and wrote:
[T]here's a famous dancer by that name, so famous she has a Wikipedia page.  As you can tell, it is a she.  Sounds like her life was a real mixture of tragedy and triumph.  Someone even created a documentary about her.

OK, so I found someone with the same unusual name as our constructor.  Is it the same person?  Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can confirm that it is.  Because of a comment made by a reader of an obituary of her in The Guardian.
Someone named Patricia Lousada added a lengthy comment to the obituary, including the following:

She was a talented portrait photographer, and an avid crossword puzzler from both sides of the grid; the New York Times published several of her invention[s]. 
Irene Smullyan

Photo courtesy of Dan Smullyan

And Todd also discovered more about pre-Shortzian constructor Irene Smullyan:
I found an online reference to a Daniel Smullyan working for the Columbia Daily Spectator.  Well, that's the paper [New York Times constructor] Finn Vigeland writes for, so I sent him a Facebook message (again, the magic of the Internet) asking if he knew Dan Smullyan.  Finn replied that not only did he know Dan, he knew that he was the son of a constructor!
With Finn's help, Todd was able to contact Dan Smullyan and interview him—here's Todd's writeup:
First of all, he corrected a mistake I'd made in the blog article.  Rema wasn't born in Russia.  The Lapouses actually left Russia in 1907 (Sophie and Alexander were revolutionaries) and moved to Paris before moving to the U.S. near Boston.  Rema was actually born in Paris.  By the way, you probably wonder why I mentioned Rema: it's because I saw several references to her online, though I hadn't really investigated them.  It turns out she was an M.D. who was prominent in the areas of epidemiology and mental disorders.  So prominent, in fact, that the American Public Health Association named an award after her.
That's why I was seeing her name so often.  While I'm here, I'll note that when her husband died (a prominent medical expert himself), the NYT ran an obituary on him that mentions Rema.
OK, enough about Rema.  Dan's mother, Irene, was, in his words, a brilliant woman who was always doing puzzles, including the Sunday NYT crossword, and one day had the idea to try her hand at constructing.  She started with daily puzzles, [and] like most of us she wasn't successful at first, but ETM saw potential and encouraged her.  As the "mother" puzzle shows, she was able to work her way up to creating Sunday puzzles.  She was excited to work with ETM (apparently the only person she submitted puzzles to), though he could be curmudgeonly.  Dan thinks she might have met ETM once in Florida (which would have been near when he passed away) but isn't sure.
Dan also mentioned that not only are Raymond Smullyan and Robert Sloan Smullyan first cousins (who were more like brothers with each other than cousins), but Raymond was the one who introduced Robert and Irene (though Dan isn't sure of the details).  By the way, Dan mentioned how his father has works in the Met and created one particularly famous war image, which you can see here.
So all around just a remarkable pair of families joined by marriage.
I asked Dan what he wanted to readers to know about his mother that wasn't already covered.  He said that she was a  wonderful, intelligent, creative, amazing person, a "force of nature."
I'm including the photo Dan sent me, as well as an obituary of Irene from Harvard Magazine, which apparently his sister wrote.  She is apparently something of an expert on obituary writing, according to Dan.
One more thing I should say.  At the start of the interview, Dan said his mother would be thrilled with the interest in her puzzles.  So a thank you from the great beyond.

Harold T. Bers

Photo courtesy of The Violet.

Finally, Todd dug up some fascinating details about pre-Shortzian constructor Harold T. Bers:
I want to tell you about some more information I found.  This time, about legendary crossword constructor Harold T. Bers.  And I mean that literally.  You do a search on him in Google, you see an entry on him in the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Heck, you even see him mentioned in the article on crossword puzzles in EB.  And both credit him with creating the so-called "internal clue crossword."  An article in the Chicago Reader even says Margaret Farrar "credited constructor Harold T. Bers with inventing the themed puzzle."  Wow!
I don't know whether this is true or not (I'm not yet familiar with the early days of themed crosswords), but it sure sounds like a tall tale to me.  So I'm really curious to see what I can find out about him.  I found some stuff on him in, but I found more interesting stuff in other places.  A 1949 blurb that mentions a promotion he got at the ad agency he was working for at the time:

A short list of some fiction he wrote (which maybe could be looked up somewhere):
I found another article that apparently mentions Mr. Bers, this time in The New Yorker magazine.
And, most significantly, an obituary from The New York Times.  The obit credits him with "the so-called inner clue feature in crossword puzzles."  I really like how they called that into question there . . . while admitting that yeah it's out there.  But I also really like how the obituary talks about the man more generally, including mentioning his family (who maybe could give a clearer picture of the man).  Note he passed away at 47, which can certainly add to one's legendary status.
Todd also found the above photo of Bers, which was originally from the 1933 edition of the New York University yearbook, The Violet.  The photo shows "what the man looked like . . . before he became a legend."

Thanks so much again, Todd, for all this great research!  It really brings the pre-Shortzian constructors to life!

July Litzer of the Month

We're in a new month, and New York Times constructor Stephen Edward Anderson, who lives what sounds like an idyllic life in Italy, is the July Litzer of the Month!  To read more about Stephen, click here or on the Litzer of the Month tab above.  Grazie, Stephen!

Crossword Talk

I was delighted to give a talk recently about the project and crosswords in general at the Newport Beach Public Library, where I saw solver extraordinaire Eric Maddy!  The audience was small but engaged, and I even spotted a couple of people solving puzzles before the talk began!  Here's a photo that was taken at the library's entrance:

Friday, June 27, 2014

Project's Second Anniversary: At 16,000, Jim Modney's Correspondence with Eugene T. Maleska, and an Interview with Jim Modney Himself

Two years ago I started the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project with the goal of litzing and proofreading all the New York Times crossword puzzles published before Will Shortz became editor.  Little did I imagine that 24 months later, more than 60 people in the crossword community would have stepped forward to help with this effort and that together we would have litzed 16,000 of the 16,225 puzzles, with all remaining, locatable puzzles assigned to litzers—and, to top it all off, that we would have proofread nearly 20 years of puzzles!  The response from the crossword community has been incredible, and I'm so grateful to everyone who has helped to make this happen!  The recognition from outside the crossword community, from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development and Quill and Scroll, has also been very gratifying, showing that this momentous undertaking has value not just to cruciverbalists but to the world at large.  Thanks so much again, everyone, on the second anniversary of this project—maybe by next year at this time, we'll have made it through most, if not all, of the proofreading and have everything up on XWord Info!  And many, many thanks to XWord Info creator Jim Horne for continuing to host the pre-Shortzian puzzles so that everyone can enjoy and learn from them!

I'm especially honored and pleased on this anniversary to be publishing what may well be the most revealing record in existence of Eugene T. Maleska as an editor.  Thanks to pre-Shortzian and now Shortz-era constructor Jim Modney, the entire correspondence between Jim and Gene is now available, and Jim has generously allowed me to post it on Scribd.  This is truly an invaluable document, showing a little-recognized side to Maleska as both an editor and a person.  I encourage everyone to read it, even if your interactions with Maleska were less than ideal.  Click here for more.

I'm also thrilled to present an interview with Jim Modney himself.  Jim's story is fascinating—he took a 30-year break from constructing, and it's great to be able to solve his Scrabbly constructions with clever themes once again!  To read Jim's interview, click here or on the Pre-Shortzian Constructor Interviews tab above.

Thanks so much again, Jim, for saving all your correspondence and making it and your interview available to the crossword world on the second anniversary of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project!

Although Jim Modney did an excellent job of describing all his puzzles, I'm still going to highlight one this week.  Today's featured Modney opus was published Saturday, September 12, 1981; edited by Eugene T. Maleska; and litzed by Mark Diehl.  It's a splendid pangrammatic 70-worder that even contains a minitheme!  The minitheme, which consists of QUARTERFINALIST and HALFHEARTEDNESS, is fractions contained in larger (15-letter, in this case) phrases.  Jim added multiple levels of consistency to his minitheme by placing the two fractions at the fronts of his theme entries and by ensuring that both theme entries are single words.  As for the nonthematic fill, Jim squeezed in tons of fresh, Scrabbly entries without having to use a large number of subpar ones, which is very impressive given that the grid is so wide open!  My favorite entries include EQUINOX, GUANACO (which gets far less attention than CAMEL or LLAMA), EXOTICISM, EJECTABLE, BENZENE, and JOKER!  I don't love GIRTS (clued as "Measures the circumference"), LATESTS ("Avant-garde styles"), or SYCES ("Indian attendants"), but all three of these entries were used in other pre-Shortzian puzzles (in the case of SYCES, in the singular).  The real trade-off with the fill is that the grid has a handful of cheater squares, but I think Jim made a good call in going for the cleaner fill rather than for the less chunky grid.  All in all, this is a fantastic pre-Shortzian puzzle with a strong minitheme and minimal junk in the fill!  The puzzle can be viewed or solved on XWord Info; also, as usual, the answer grid (with highlighted theme entries) can be seen below:

In closing, here's a quick update on the past week.  Saturday morning Andrew Reynolds sent 4 litzed puzzles.  A few hours later, Todd Gross sent 12 proofread puzzles, and then that afternoon, Nancy Kavanaugh sent 24 litzed puzzles.  Sunday evening, Ed Sessa sent in 7 more, putting us at exactly 16,000 on the litzing thermometer!  Late Thursday night, Todd sent 15 proofread puzzles, which were followed Friday afternoon by 30 more from Larry Wasser.  Great job, everyone—thanks so much again!