Crossword editor opens the door to innovation across the board Shortz story

November 22, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Pleasantville, N.Y. -- Here lies ESNE. And ATUA and OBAN. In this leafy and aptly named town in Westchester County, those four-letter words for serf, Polynesian demon and Scottish port are being laid to rest.

"And I will put ANOA out to pasture," Will Shortz puns. (Clue: Four-letter word for Celebes ox.)

F: Words, of course, never really die. Long after they've

been uttered by any living, breathing person, they retire to the Florida of the vocabulary: the crossword puzzle.

But now, they'll have one less refuge. And it's the big one, the New York Times puzzle that is the top, the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum of puzzledom. It has been taken over by Mr. Shortz, 41, the head brat of the pack that has been dragging crosswords into the 20th century with clues composed of clever turns of phrases and references as likely to come from MTV as opera.

Mr. Shortz debuted as Times puzzle editor yesterday with a killer of a crossword, a brow-furrowing, dictionary-defying affair -- and entirely in the witty, puckish spirit of what he has in store for the word-crunchers among us.

Working from a second-floor study in his fastidiously tidy home, Mr. Shortz hardly looks the part of a revolutionary with his neatly trimmed hair and preppy-leaning style of dress. Yet his ascension to this most prestigious post in his field represents a true changing of the guard: He is only the fourth puzzle editor in the 51 years that the Times has run crosswords, taking over for Eugene T. Maleska, who died in August, and decades younger than his predecessors. His approach to puzzles is equally fresh.

"Crosswords should reflect the language of the times," he says. "In the past, [the Times puzzle] tested classical knowedge. I will add more updated subjects -- TV, movies, modern slang, modern names in the news.

"It shouldn't just be a test of knowledge. It should be a test of cleverness, too," he adds. "I like puzzles for people with flexible minds."

This is no surprise, of course, to fans of Mr. Shortz, the "puzzle master" whose Sunday morning quizzes on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition have a loyal following. Or those who have wrestled with the mind-twisters he's created for "Games" magazine, where he was editor until several months ago, or the annual American Crossword Puzzle tournament, which he founded in 1978.

He hopes to bring a similarly updated style to the Times puzzle. And when 15 down is "Stimpy's buddy," as it was yesterday, you immediately know this is not your father's old puzzle. (The puzzle in yesterday's New York Times will appear in The Sun in its usual place in the Perspective section this coming Sunday.)

It's not just clues

But even more new-wave than the individual clues is the overall theme of the puzzle.

(As with "The Crying Game," we must warn you: If you haven't done constructor Peter Gordon's puzzle yet, skip the next paragraph!)

For 72 across, the clue was "After-shower scene," a seven-letter word. RAINBOW, right? Not in the new New York Times puzzle. Instead, in each of the seven boxes in which you normally would print a single letter, you had to squeeze a whole word, the entire name of a color of the rainbow. And in the right order of a real rainbow -- RED, ORANGE, YELLOW, GREEN, BLUE, INDIGO, VIOLET. And you had to do that every time those words appeared elsewhere in the puzzle -- meaning, for example, the six-letter answer to "'Closer to Fine' singers" would be "INDIGOGIRLS," and INDIGO is written in one box followed by GIRLS in the six boxes following. Even better (or worse, depending on your perspective) the answer, "VIOLETSAREBLUE," fit into a mere six squares.

Aaaiiiiieeee!

"It's a tour de force," Mr. Shortz says with a devilish, gotcha grin. "I don't think this would have appeared in the old Times. It's too inventive, it's too fresh, it's too creative."

Anticipating resistance

He's expecting some cross words from tradition-bound puzzle solvers -- but then, as all newspapers have learned, even the smallest of changes to longstanding features like puzzles and comics can set the phone lines afire.

"I'm sure I'll get complaints for things like using television references," says Mr. Shortz. "Some people probably think you shouldn't besmirch the Times puzzle that way. They just want puzzles to stay the same."

Such is the genteel world of crossword puzzles -- the kind of subculture in which an ongoing controversy is whether . . . brand names . . . are permissible. And some of Mr.Shortz' changes at the Times are barely blips on the radar to those who don't regularly and passionately follow this world: Daily puzzles, for example, will now bear the bylines of their constructors as Sunday puzzles always have. Shocking, we know, but someone had to break the news to you.

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