Crosswords click

Across and down: Software makes creating and filling in the puzzles easier as the games enjoy a renaissance.

April 11, 2002|By Leila Abboud | Leila Abboud,COLUMBIA NEWS SERVICE

As a child, Terry Landau used to look over her mother's shoulder as she did the daily crossword puzzle in the New York Herald Tribune. By age 15, she was hooked. Today, Landau still does daily puzzles, but quite differently from the way her mother did.

Every night about 10, the 52-year-old paralegal logs on to the Internet from her Manhattan apartment to do the next day's puzzle on The New York Times Web site. Using crossword puzzle software, she types her answers into the black-and-white grid on the screen.

When she finishes, Landau can immediately check her answers, and discuss the day's puzzle with other solvers in a chat room on the Times Web site, www.nytimes.com.

"I don't get ink on my fingers anymore," she said.

Landau's experience is just one example of how technology is revitalizing one of America's most popular games. The Internet and new software have changed how people create and solve crosswords.

Chat rooms and Web sites have created a community where none existed and attracted younger players. With the help of online tutorials and puzzle-making software, more novices have begun creating crosswords.

`Never more popular'

Today, more than 50 million Americans do crosswords, and at least one appears in almost every newspaper (The Sun carries two). The simple and ubiquitous game, which was never trademarked or copyrighted, is a 20th-century American invention. Crossword fans - also known as cruciverbalists, from the Latin - have been solving puzzles since the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913.

From the volume of mail, phone calls, and media attention he receives, Will Shortz, the editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle, believes that crosswords are enjoying a renaissance. "My feeling is that crosswords have never been more popular," he said.

A record number of people attended last month's American Crossword Tournament in Stamford, Conn. Shortz, who organized the tournament, said attendance was up 30 percent from last year to 401 participants.

This is not the first crossword craze. After Simon & Schuster began printing books of puzzles in 1924, Americans developed crossword fever. In New York City, the public library had to limit dictionary use to five minutes per person. Dictionaries were placed in each train car for commuters. Shortz's favorite artifact from this period is an abridged dictionary that could be worn on the wrist in place of a watch.

Today, puzzlers and constructors use more sophisticated tools. Gone are the days when Landau used her shelf of reference books to get through a particularly difficult puzzle. Today, she uses the cruciverbalists' best friend - the search engine Google.

Purists complain that reliance on technology ruins puzzling. But Emily Cox and Henry Ravathon, a husband-and-wife puzzle-writing team who also run The New York Times chat room, say technology has had a more significant impact on the puzzle creator than the solver.

"Until the 1970s, crossword constructors had to rely entirely on pencil, graph paper, and the cerebral cortex to get a diagram filled with words," Cox said. Now, they use software that includes databases of words and phrases to make puzzles.

"These are handy tools but they can't match the sheer fertility of the brain," Ravathon said. "There is still no match for a creative thinker who might use slang, pop catchphrases, names in the news, and offbeat phrases like `yo mama' or `says who.'"

Technology hasn't dimmed the passion that moves people to write crosswords. Most do it only as a hobby because free-lance rates are so low. (The New York Times pays $75 per daily puzzle.) But online forums, like one at www.cruciverb.com, are making constructors' jobs easier. On e-mail lists and bulletin boards, novices can get advice from experienced constructors.

Valuable feedback

Peter Abide got his start in puzzle-writing with the help of Cruciverb.com members. A longtime solver, the 42-year-old lawyer from Biloxi, Miss., found the Web site invaluable as he built his first puzzle. He wrote a grid, and came up with a theme to build the puzzle around. He posted the theme and, within a day, other constructors e-mailed him with suggestions on how to improve his work. It took Abide 50 hours to finish his first puzzle. Two years and three New York Times-published crosswords later, Abide can construct a puzzle in three hours.

"I never would have thought to try writing puzzles," he said.

Will Shortz likens Cruciverb to his experience as a novice constructor at Games magazine 20 years ago. He used to take his puzzles into the editor's office and watch him do them.

"It's just like a comedian or a singer before an audience, getting feedback," Shortz said. "Most people don't have chance to work in an editorial office like I did, but the Web site works in the same way."

Crosswords online

Cruciverb.com: The online meeting place for crossword builders. www.cruciverb.com

Crossword Puzzle Center: A site with an exhaustive list of links to online crosswords in the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere, plus information on crossword software, reference works and other resources. www.crossword-puzzles.co.uk

Thinks.com: This word and mind games site offers a variety of online crossword puzzles and references. www.thinks.com

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