Around five p.m. last Sunday afternoon in Campbell Hall, grown men and women shouted animatedly at a genial gentleman standing onstage.
“Shop woman! Malice! Troubadour!” Their cries were confident at first and more sheepish when the man refused to respond. Then, a humbled silence.
Finally, an elderly woman took a shot: “Sand bar?”
“Correct,” the man onstage exclaimed. Applause poured toward this little old lady and she beamed, nervously adjusting her glasses. She looked supremely pleased at answering the question, and no doubt it is that same rush of triumph that drives people to solve the kinds of puzzles the man had supplied for the eager crowd. The man was Will Shortz, editor of the The New York Times crossword puzzle, enigma impresario, quiet quiz master and the man with all the answers.
Mr. Shortz spent about a good hour describing his own interest in puzzles and crossword history, and leading the crowd in some surprisingly simple, yet exciting, word games similar to his segment on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Sunday.” After relating his own story, it seemed clear that puzzling pervaded his destiny from the beginning. He started making crosswords at eight and published several in Dell press by 16. While attending Indiana University, he created his own major devoted to puzzles, and is the world’s only “enigmatologist.” Perhaps his greatest accomplishment – next to advancing the Sudoku craze and formulating some of the world’s most complicated crossword puzzles – would be the formation of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, featured in the movie “Wordplay.” Simply put, he remains one of the most successful and prolific puzzlers in the world.
People of all ages enjoyed and participated in the games at the end of Shortz’s wild word ride. Early on his talk, though, he mentioned that a lot of the appeal of crosswords comes from their visual symmetry. By balancing humility with talent, being intelligent yet approachable, Shortz achieves an endearing symmetry of his own. Not to mention the fact that he allowed attendees to experience the mental enjoyment that comes from puzzling out a problem – an exercise in intelligence of the kind that is often a bit absent from the Isla Vista scene. Now, what’s a six letter word for “inebriated”? Answer is in the back.