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An obsession that puzzles even the fan

Crossworld: One Man's Journey Into America's Crossword Obsession; Marc Romano; Broadway Books: 238 pp., $24.95

June 19, 2005|Jon Winokur | Jon Winokur is the author of various books, including "Encyclopedia Neurotica," "The Portable Curmudgeon" and the forthcoming "Ennui to Go."

"Crossworld" is an exercise in participatory journalism, the story of how New York-based writer and translator Marc Romano immersed himself in the quirky world of crosswords and competed in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Solving word puzzles is a solitary pursuit that attracts people who enjoy being alone, but at this annual tournament in Stamford, Conn., the puzzlers come out and mingle, creating what Romano describes as an "energetic geekfest" akin to a high school Math Olympiad. It's a "circus atmosphere," he writes, in which "the participants are simultaneously the audience and the performing seals." Many wear puzzle-themed clothing, including, at the 2004 event that Romano chronicles, a man with a giant No. 2 pencil on his head and a woman in a T-shirt that reads, "Real women do it in pen." Romano dryly notes that the contestants "appear unhealthily consumed by puzzles" even though they insist they aren't there to win but for the sheer joy of participation. Or at least for the chance to binge on their "ruling passion" without having their spouses around begging them to put down the graphite.

What separates world-class solvers from the rest of us? A penchant for wordplay, lots of practice and what Romano calls a "garbage mind" the driving urge to collect information, combined with the ability to recognize patterns and symbols. It isn't enough to have a head full of trivia; you must also have it stored in the right "mental cupboards" and be able to retrieve it quickly, under pressure. Tournament winners tend to be mathematicians, musicians or, to a lesser extent, writers, poets, translators or editors. They're also disproportionately white, male and from the East Coast.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Crossword puzzles -- In Sunday's Book Review, the review of "Crossworld: One Man's Journey Into America's Crossword Obsession" attributed the statement "[t]he going rate for a New York Times weekday puzzle is $100" to Jon Winokur, the writer of the review. It should have been attributed to Marc Romano, the author of the book.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 26, 2005 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Crossword puzzles -- In the June 19th Book Review, the review of "Crossworld: One Man's Journey Into America's Crossword Obsession" attributed the statement "[t]he going rate for a New York Times weekday puzzle is $100" to Jon Winokur. It should have been attributed to Marc Romano, the book's author.

Romano estimates that a significant percentage of the 60 million Americans who regularly do crosswords buy or subscribe to newspapers solely for the puzzles. The Boston Globe, for example, with a daily circulation of close to 500,000, once forgot to run its puzzle and got thousands of angry letters. Romano suggests that crosswords can be an "emotional crutch," at least for those who solve more than seven puzzles a week, and he reports that some solvers meticulously enshrine their completed puzzles in scrapbooks. Romano admits being "hopelessly addicted" to the New York Times crossword puzzle, and the account of his skid reads like testimony at a 12-step meeting: "The high no longer lasts as long as it once did; what initially could occupy me for a whole afternoon now takes me twenty minutes or less to get through. I have become increasingly alarmed that the supply of the thing I need is limited. The Times publishes only one puzzle per day, and when that's done I find myself rooting about for substitutes -- The Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, and New York Sun puzzles, to name just a few -- that are somehow less satisfying."

The New York Times puzzle is indeed the gold standard for American-style crosswords: Always a symmetrical grid with a prescribed ratio of white squares to black, there are no stand-alone letters and no words fewer than three letters long, writes Romano. Every answer must be interchangeable, if used in a sentence, with the clue that produces it. He notes that in many crosswords, acronyms, rebuses (symbols that represent a word) and numerals (Roman or Arabic) are acceptable. Obscenities are out, of course, as are references to death, pain, illness and sexual matters.

Solvers express their skill level in terms of how long it takes them to complete the Sunday New York Times puzzle. Most civilians require the better part of a week, if they finish at all. Romano averages 23 minutes. Jon Delfin, a pianist who has won the tournament seven times, can do it in about 10 minutes. (The left-handed Delfin routinely solves puzzles with his right hand while listening to the radio or talking on the telephone.)

On the assumption that a crossword puzzle inevitably reflects the predilections of its editor, Romano profiles the two men behind the New York Times puzzle in recent memory. Eugene T. Maleska, Times puzzle editor from 1977 until his death in 1993, had pet filler words ("adit," "oryx," "ani," "esne") and favored cultural references from the first half of the 20th century. When Will Shortz succeeded Maleska, he made the crosswords more technically complex and more pop-culture oriented, and reinforced the practice of starting the week with easier puzzles, which outraged traditionalists but attracted new solvers.

Shortz, who also hosts the puzzle segment on National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition," is uniquely qualified: He earned an undergraduate degree from Indiana University in "enigmatology," the study of puzzles and games and their relationship to their cultural environment, thought to be the only such degree ever granted by any university. He selects and edits each crossword submitted by a cadre of about 30 puzzle "constructors."

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