Wordplay

Dave and I finally watched the documentary Wordplay a few nights ago. It’s a terrific movie, and for me there’s the added interest that I know about half the people in the movie from my 14 years as a puzzle editor and my five years in New York City in the late 1980s. Ellen Ripstein and Jon Delfin were part of a group of New Yorkers who got together for brunch and conversation and puzzles once a month. (Maybe the New York puzzle people still do? I haven’t communicated with a lot of those folks probably since my surgery seven years ago.) We met at Phebe’s in the East Village for a while, and in summer we often picnicked on the grass near Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. My memory is that Will Shortz was an occasional part of that group but not a regular. Trip Payne became part of that group, too, once he moved to New York, which was in 1988 I think. (Then I moved away from New York and to the San Francisco Bay Area in the summer of 1989.) Quite a few other people in the movie like Miriam Raphael and Helene Hovanec I knew less well but saw several times a year.

I met Merl Reagle in the mid ’80s when we living a few miles from each other in Los Angeles. Merl was the one who taught me how to construct a good crossword puzzle. I was living in Los Angeles in a little neighborhood just north of Culver City. Merl lived in a somewhat cramped studio apartment in Santa Monica. He liked to get out of there during the day, so he would hang out a lot in Fromin’s Deli on Wilshire in Santa Monica and work on his puzzles there. There was a period of six months or so — till I got the job at Games magazine that took me to New York — when I was hanging out with him a lot in the afternoons, sitting across the table from him at Fromin’s, each of us working on his own stuff, and every once in a while I’d ask him what I should do about a tough section I couldn’t fill, or he’d ask me if I could think of any interesting words or phrases that fit a certain pattern. When you construct a lot of crosswords, you do a lot of looking at a pattern like, oh, an eight-letter word where the third letter has to be B and the fifth letter can be either M, R, T, or W, and coming up with as many different words and phrases as you can that will fit, so that you can choose the one that works best with the developing pattern or that you think is the most interesting, or actually more likely the one which looks like the best compromise between both of those virtues.

(Let’s see: CUBE ROOT, ALBUM ART, EMBARGOS, RIB STEAK, ELBOWING, BABY TALK, BABA WAWA, LABOR DAY, ARBOR DAY, AMBITION, LOBOTOMY, ROBERSON, DO BATTLE, SIBERIAN, LIBERIAN, NO BETTER, NO BOTHER, AT BOTTOM, ROBOTICS, SYBARITE. There are programs that will give you all the dictionary entries that match **B*M*** and **B*R*** and so on, but you can’t rely just on those alone because phrases like ALBUM ART and BABY TALK and BABA WAWA don’t show up in them, and unexpected answers like that are part of what makes a crossword fun to solve.)

My first crossword took me three days to construct, and when I showed it to Merl, he pointed out that there was one obscure word, and said I should work harder to get it out. But under the house rules of most puzzle magazines, I protested, a 15×15 crossword (that is, weekday size, not Sunday size) is allowed up to six obscure words as long as no two of them cross, and I only had one. And Merl said to me that if I had five or six obscure words in my grid, he wouldn’t tell me to keep working, but that since it was just one, I should work harder to get it to zero. A puzzle with no obscure words at all is much more desirable and salable, he told me, than a puzzle with even just one, whereas there isn’t much difference between a puzzle with say four obscure words and one with five. A puzzle that uses only common words is actually harder to construct, because the constructor has fewer words to choose from, and it’s easier for the magazine or newspaper to place because it’s more flexible. Magazines need puzzles in all levels of difficulty, easy, medium, and hard, and good easy puzzles are often in the shortest supply. What’s more, if an editor finds he needs another medium or hard puzzle and doesn’t have any more in his inventory, he can take an easy puzzle and rewrite the clues to make it harder, but there’s no way he can take a hard puzzle and rewrite the clues to make a word like ESNE or ANOA easy.

In the movie, we see Merl going through just that process of revision, if you know what to look for. We see him at several stages of constructing a puzzle, and we watch as he finishes a tough section by using the uncommon word REDTOP, which is a kind of grass. As I watched him leaf through the dictionary and say to the camera that it was okay because the word was in there, I cringed a little — it’s not like the Merl I knew to settle for a word like that in a puzzle otherwise free of uncommon words. But sure enough, when we see the finished puzzle in print later, the word REDTOP is gone and that section is reworked with only common words and phrases (I think PILE UP is now there where REDTOP was). So even though we never see it in the movie, at some point he must have gone back and reworked it. That kind of attention to the details of craftsmanship is one part of why Merl is one of the all-time great constructors.

It’s interesting to trace my life backward from here and now, and to realize that if Merl hadn’t taught me to construct a good crossword, I probably wouldn’t have gone to New York to work at Games, I certainly wouldn’t have spent over a decade as a puzzle editor, and I probably would not be a technical editor today. Whether my life would have been better or worse today, I have no idea. There were some bad things about working in the puzzle business for so long, but at the same time there was a lot of flexibility about my time, and I don’t think I could have written one libretto a year for so many years with Berkeley Opera if I’d had an office job. Beatrice and Benedict and Bat out of Hell and The Riot Grrrl on Mars and Daughter of the Cabinet were all written while working as a puzzle editor out of my home.

Dave had to put up with my incessant commentary on the movie — “Look, there’s Helene Hovanec! That’s Nancy Schuster! See how that guy checked his watch as soon as he finished? You only lose points for whole minutes, so he can keep double-checking his answers for another 40 seconds. Why haven’t I seen Mike Shenk anywhere — are he and Will on the outs? Where’s David Rosen? Lordy, is that Doug Heller with the beard?” I suppose it’s a good thing we never got around to seeing the movie in a theater or I’d have been kicked out.

It was fun to see Trip solving so well in the tournament in the movie. Trip stayed with me for a few months when he first moved to New York City to work at Games magazine, where he and I and Mike Shenk and Will Shortz were all working at the time. We still communicate by email every once in a while. I should drop him a line and tell him I finally saw the movie. Trip came out as a gay man after I’d left New York, and I think maybe we still communicate now and then largely because of the shared bond of being among the very few openly gay men in the puz biz. (Maybe things have changed in the last seven or eight years, but back when I was working in puzzles that’s how it was.) Trip told me a while back that he’s particularly proud that he’s seen in the movie giving his partner a kiss. Their onscreen kiss is more of an friendly peck than a romantic smooch, but hey, we have to take what we can get.

I wonder whether I should mention to Trip that Dave told me he thought he was easily the most attractive guy in the movie. I think I will tell him that.

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