A few minutes ago I sat down to do the New York Times crossword, as I do every morning at breakfast and sometimes three or four times later in the day. This being a Saturday, it was formidable. Many people assume that the Sunday puzzle is the toughest thing out there, because it’s bigger. Not true. The Sunday puzzle may have a trick, such as the use of symbols or multiple letters in one box, and it has room for longer answers that may include outrageous puns or other wordplay, but working it is not too hard because the supporting clues tend to be easier. No, it’s the Saturday bastard that is the bull-goose wowser in the crossword racket. Sometimes you look at it and see all that white space, maybe all four corners that interlock 6-letter words, and you just despair. But I always finish them. Always.
I used to do them on paper, but I didn’t like the cost of subscribing, especially since I only do the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday ones. For some reason the editor, Will Shortz, the star of this movie, scales them up gradually during the week. Monday is not even worth looking at, you can fill it in as fast as you can write. Even Thursday isn’t much of a challenge. I’m not such a X-word goof that I’ll fill in any old grid. (Jon Stewart, one of the celebrities shown in this film, admits that he’ll even do a USA Today puzzle … but he doesn’t feel good about himself afterward.) Now I do them on the computer, and Monday through Thursday I download an old one from the archive that goes back to 1996. I’ve done them all, but I don’t have a photographic memory, and after a few years it might as well be a new one.
But this morning I did something different, because of watching this movie. I started the little timer that comes with the online version, to see how fast I was. This is something I never do; I don’t work them for a fast time, but for the pleasure of solving. My time: 16 minutes and 2 seconds. But I was eating a bowl of cereal while I solved …
I’m not bragging. I probably could have finished it in 10 minutes, but the people in Wordplay regularly turn in times of 5 to 8 minutes, sometimes even less. That’s not for me. I’m just not competitive like that. I’ve never thought of entering a Scrabble tournament, though I’m a damn good Scrabble player. Sitting there with 3 or 4 other people I’m competitive as hell, no quarter is asked or given, I take no prisoners. But that’s as far as it goes. I’d never go to the crossword tournament that is the centerpiece here, either, though it might be fun to meet some of the people. They are all very smart—have to be—and articulate and a little bit loony, which is fine with me. But they are all obsessed, and I’m not.
The best parts are listening to the famous X-word addicts explain their addiction, their ways of solving, and then—believe it or not—watching them solve the same puzzle, talking out loud as they go. I know, it doesn’t seem possible, but the director has found ways to make it exciting. There is Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls, Ken Burns (a lefty, like Clinton and Stewart … and me!), and Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina, who likens a Saturday puzzle to pitching to Barry Bonds.
The final is as tense as the World Series. Three guys on stage, solving without a net, for all the world to see their blunders and recoveries … and the sad saga of Al Sanders. A perennial third-place, he has his puzzle solved before the other two, he’s finally won … and then realizes he’s made a bonehead move that ranks up there with Bill Buckner letting a simple little liner to first dribble between his knees and score the winning run whereby the Mets eventually defeated the Red Sox.
My only complaint would matter only to other fellow puzzlers. No mention is made of Eugene Maleska, who held the job of NYT editor before Will Shortz did, and who was famously fussy about slang and pop culture, which he didn’t like. I’m with Shortz—anything goes!!!—but Maleska was a giant.