Puzzlers At Play In Baltimore

Champions Of Wordplay Exult In Nerdiness, Craft A Clue Around 'Homicide'

July 12, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

They look at "Baltimore" and see "labor it me." The National Puzzlers' League, the world's oldest and best-known group of wordplay experts, held its annual convention this weekend at the Tremont Grand on Charles Street.

Led by puzzle-celeb Will Shortz, who edits The New York Times' crossword and hosts a weekly segment on National Public Radio, about 160 attendees binged on palindromes, anagrams, poetry and other word games. Witty handles replace full names. Shortz, a member since 1972, is "WILLz" - wordplay itself ("short" z).

The puzzlers gather every year because "you can't get these games anywhere else," said Briana Miller, an art teacher and illustrator in Oakland, Calif. "All the intricate word play - it's real brain work."

A hotel conference room was dead silent Saturday as the group worked through pencil-and-paper competitions, vying for puzzle books.

Friday afternoon, "Manx," also known as The Wall Street Journal's crossword editor Mike Shenk, led participants through "Face Value," a picture puzzle that plays with the alphabet.

The grand finale Saturday night was Shortz's "Puzzler Treasure Hunt," which had participants scurrying through the hotel for clues. They used binoculars to survey a billboard outside a window, scoured newspaper classified ads, and called a former state senator as they worked toward the solution.

Circuit veterans describe the best puzzles in words that often refer to women: "elegant," "cute," "beautiful." They give standing ovations at the end of particularly charming games.

David Dickerson, a writer in Manhattan, said he loves the nerd immersion. When he worked in the greeting card industry, he was reprimanded for making too many literary references around his colleagues. He bottled up, keeping a notebook instead of blurting out puns.

"Here, I can geek out, and no one judges me," he said. "If I play trivia in a standard living room, I dominate, and it's no fun. But here I am dealing with the most brilliant people in the U.S."

Dickerson turned to Miller to point out that "Martha Stewart" also spells out "Mart haste wart."

"In the real world, that makes me weird," he said. "Here, it makes me cool."

Membership in the National Puzzlers' League, which dates to 1883, is at an all-time high of about 700, according to Shortz, who assembles the games for the convention. The group also holds regional gatherings and publishes Enigma, a magazine of member-written puzzles.

The Baltimore convention has been in the works about two years, said T.K. Focht of Silver Spring, one of the organizers. There were plenty of site-specific puzzles on hand, crafted by members. One game titled, "Homicide: Death on the Streets," - a nod to the TV series based in Baltimore - included this instruction:

"A wild, vicious killer has severed a part from each victim and placed it on the street; what remains of the victims are still words. Once you have reconstructed the crime scene, you can read the severed parts in the direction of the arrow to find the name of another street. ..."

Want to know the solution? So do we.

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