One usually pictures crossword solvers as solitary, studious, anti-social types, bespectacled bards who find bliss only in arriving at the right word in the right place.
Not Will Shortz.
As editor of what aficionados consider the ne plus ultra of the craft, The New York Times crossword puzzle, Shortz is the gregarious ambassador of puzzledom, the man who almost single-handedly is elevating puzzles to the entertainment mainstream.
"He's the Errol Flynn of crossword puzzles," Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show and a committed puzzle solver, says of Shortz in Wordplay, a documentary about crosswords that features Shortz as its central character alongside passionate puzzlers like Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls and former Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina (now with the Yankees).
The high point of the film, which opened in Baltimore on Friday, is the culmination of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held annually in the spring in a hotel in Stamford, Conn. Shortz has been its host since founding the event in 1978.
At a time when spelling bees are making it onto prime time television -- as is every other human contest imaginable, from singing to eating insects to racing across the planet -- it seems inevitable that crossword puzzles, with their intense, brain-busting challenges, should end up with similar exposure.
In an interview, Shortz, trim, neat and mustachoied, self-effacingly said the attention that Wordplay has received is a bit of a surprise.
"From my standpoint, I didn't think the movie would turn out as well as it has," he said. "I thought it might be something they could sell to PBS or to a late-night cable channel."
Instead, Wordplay, directed by veteran cameraman Patrick Creadon, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was the only American documentary to get snapped up for a distribution deal, under which it is unspooling on screens around the country.
"That's very cool," said Shortz, who is far from the ponderous, pontificating wordsmith one might imagine. "It's an honor, it's flattering, and it's an experience I've never had before. I'm very pleased this subject will reach a lot of people who've never thought much about crosswords before."
Not that the craft of puzzling is short of adherents. Shortz cited a Gallup poll's conclusion several years ago that more than 50 million Americans solve crosswords at least occasionally. From The Times, whose daily circulation is more than 1.2 million, the Monday-to-Saturday puzzles -- each with 76 clues, progressively more difficult as the week goes on -- are syndicated to 150 other publications in the United States and Canada, while the paper's larger Sunday puzzle (circulation: 1.7 million), goes out to about 300 publications. Those figures do not begin to count the people who do the puzzles online.
Shortz' word games also get weekly play on National Public Radio, where since 1989 he has held the title of "puzzle master" on Weekend Edition Sunday, heard by about 2.5 million people over 600 affiliated stations around the country.
"Probably more people hear my puzzles on NPR than solve my puzzles in The Times," Shortz said. "My radio puzzles are sort of solver-friendly, in the sense that it's a general audience I'm trying to entertain and amuse. The nice thing about NPR is that when my puzzle comes on for seven minutes, you have to listen to me in order to get to the next piece, so I have sort of a captive audience on the radio. Whereas if you're reading The New York Times, if there's my crossword puzzle on the page and you're not interested, you can flip the page."
Liane Hansen, the longtime host of Weekend Edition Sunday, whose idea it was to have Shortz play word games with listeners, said she once gave him a T-shirt affectionately emblazoned with the legend, "Mr. Know-It-All."
"I love that I can still learn things from him," she said. "He's dashing, he's smart, he's funny, he's contemporary, he's unpredictable, he's diabolical. He wants you to work. He wants you to hit that ball back over the net and make it a game, and he's delighted when you know the answer."
Shortz, born in 1952 and raised on an Arabian horse farm in Indiana, is the only person in the world to hold a college degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles, which Indiana University awarded him in 1974 after allowing him to set up his own curriculum and give it a name. He took over The Times' puzzle in 1993 after the death of Eugene T. Maleska, who had held the post since 1977 and had only two predecessors, beginning with Margaret Petherbridge Farrar in 1942 and Will Weng in 1967.