Friday, May 23, 2014

Todd Gross's Research on Pre-Shortzian Constructors—Plus, Solve His Litzed Copy of "The Toughest Crossword Puzzle Ever," by Jordan S. Lasher!

It's been another very busy week on the proofreading front!  Late Friday night, Mark Diehl sent in 31 puzzles, then Saturday night, Todd Gross sent in 8.  Sunday night, Mark sent 30 more, and Monday night, Todd sent another 7!  Tuesday evening, new litzer Spencer Pasero sent in 1 puzzle, which was followed by 31 more proofread puzzles from Mark.  Thursday night, Mark sent another 31 puzzles, and Friday morning, Larry Wasser sent in 7 more.  And this week Howard Barkin sent 31 proofread puzzles too.  Terrific job, everybody—we'll be done with 1975 very soon!

On the litzing front, there are still many puzzles out with litzers, so even though the thermometer hasn't gone up much recently, it will eventually—my hope is that we'll have all these puzzles in by the end of the summer!

Information about many pre-Shortzian constructors' lives has been lost to the sands of time, but litzer and proofreader Todd Gross has done a tremendous job recently of unearthing new details about some of the more prolific early New York Times constructors!  He also found a copy of Crossword Puzzle Compendium by Norton Bramesco and Jordan S. Lasher, about which he wrote the following:

It's actually really good.  The content is similar to other crossword books, talking about the history and format of crosswords, how to construct and how to solve, and giving bios on editors and constructors.  What separates this book is how good the content is.  They didn't just repeat what's out there, they did their own investigation.  They didn't just give their opinions of top constructors (including the aforementioned Hume R. Craft), they got quotes from many/most of them.

Maybe best of all, there are lots of puzzles in here.  Most of them by Jordan Lasher, but also one from each of the constructors profiled, also I believe one each by Maleska (first Stepquote puzzle!), Weng, and Margaret Farrar (!).

I've ordered a copy of Crossword Puzzle Compendium myself, and I'm hoping to post constructor bios from it on Scribd this summer.  (I have constructor bios from several other books and publications as well that I plan to post there too—I'll announce them here as they appear.)

Todd noted that the final puzzle in Crossword Puzzle Compendium was Jordan S. Lasher's "The Toughest Crossword Puzzle Ever."  He decided to litz it and look up every entry, adding notes to the CCW file.  He wrote:

The puzzle is 25x25 with 208 entries (Jordan specifically wanted it to be at least 200).  Over half of these have never appeared in a Shortzian NYT crossword.  When I do an analysis using XWord Info, almost the entire grid is red!  The Freshness Factor is I believe 86.2 (that's the factor, not the percentage).  I've found a few small errors in the clues, but so far there's only 1 or 2 I haven't been able to verify online.  It's an amazing construction, especially given how he's trying very hard not to use the sort of bread and butter entries crosswords then and now are filled with.

Here's a piece Todd put together about the puzzle when he was finished:

This puzzle was created by Jordan Lasher for the First World Class Crossword Puzzle Marathon, held over 24 hours on 15–16 Sep 1978.  The puzzle was commissioned by a bookstore in Beachwood, OH, and intended to be so difficult that no one would submit a correct answer, even with 24 hours in a 30,000 volume bookstore.  Some competitors even went to a local library to do further research . . . something Mr. Lasher himself did in constructing this puzzle, on top of the 50 reference works he borrowed from said bookstore.

The puzzle, at 25x25 with 208 entries, lived up to expectations.  Out of 186 entrants, no one submitted a fully correct solution.  The winner (Michael Donner, former editor of GAMES magazine) was 88% correct.  Only 32 even submitted anything, and some of those had negative scores [meaning they got more answers incorrect than correct]!

Before litzing the puzzle (and looking up all the obscure entries online, notes on which are included in the CCW file), I decided to try my hand at this monster of a puzzle.  I gave myself one hour, with no research, books or otherwise.  So, how did I do?  Remember, there are pretty good solvers who got a negative score with 24 hours and a bookstore to research in.  I don't know what their scoring system was, but I had 16 correct entries (7.7%), with 3 incorrect entries, which really amazed me.

But more amazing was how Jordan created this puzzle by hand, trying his darndest to squeeze in as many obscure (but findable) entries as he could.  About half of the entries have never appeared (to date) in a New York Times crossword, with about 2 dozen more appearing only in Pre-Shortzian puzzles.  It must have been tough avoiding using standard tricks and entries, working with rarely-if-ever seen letter combinations.  All in all, I'd say he did a superb job.

My advice to anyone who tries to solve this: using Google isn't just OK, it's strongly encouraged.  Also, many of these entries use variant (or older) spellings, and you don't always get told about them in the clues.  And finally, enjoy!

If you'd like to try doing the litzed puzzle, you can access it in either Crossword Compiler (complete with Todd's comments) or Across Lite on the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project Google Drive by clicking on one of the links below.:

Crossword Compiler version

Across Lite version

Awesome job, Todd—thanks so much for making this classic puzzle available with all your notes!

While researching, Todd also found several obituaries for pre-Shortzian constructors.  One (behind a paywall) was for Josephine Felker—likely our current "J. A. Felker"—confirming that she was a New York Times crossword constructor.  Another was for Jay Spry, whose wife apparently created puzzles too.  And a third was for the legendary Ernst Theimer.  Todd noted that Theimer passed away in 1994—the same year his Shortz-era puzzle was published.  Todd also found an Associated Press article about a Tap Osborn crossword puzzle on a T-shirt.

In addition, Todd's research suggests that the constructor we have listed as "Higgins" is actually Anne Higgins Petz, who wrote a book of Bible crossword puzzles.  Todd notes that her August 6, 1976, puzzle has some Christian references and that her Web site indicates that she constructed New York Times crosswords.  I've written to her, and I'm hoping to confirm this information.

Todd also found the Web site of pre-Shortzian constructor and chemist Mary Virginia Orna, who wrote a fascinating chapter, "Always a Cross(ed) Word," in A Festival of Chemistry Entertainments.  I had hoped to post this chapter on Scribd, but unfortunately that wouldn't be allowed by the American Chemical Society.  I've linked to the abstract, though, and you can either purchase the full text or see if your library has access to it.  Todd also found the following quote from Orna's college magazine:  "If you crossword fans were wondering, this is also the Mary Virginia Orna who teased your brains for years with the puzzles she authored for The New York Times.  But even now, with more time to spend outside the classroom, she's just too busy to get back down (and across) to that old pastime."

Finally, Todd found an excerpt from a great article from the September 1981 Attenzione magazine (an Italian-American publication) that discussed the process of creating crosswords and included quotes from Jack Luzzatto and Alfio Micci.  I'll try to get a copy of the full article to post on Scribd.

Outstanding research, Todd—thanks so much again!


  1. Wow, that is a frightening, horrific puzzle, although impressive construction considering. The best part is reading Todd's research and commentary on the clues. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Howard! I'm glad you enjoyed it—Todd did indeed do an amazing job researching this puzzle. I found his comments very entertaining and informative too.