Crossword puzzles in the modern age

By Hayley Gold
On March 4, 2010

To read an interview with New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, click here.

Crossword solvers are often viewed as octogenarians, unversed in the ways of social media, pop culture and computing, but a mere Google search will reveal that a growing under-50 fan base is replacing the luddites of yore.

If you have any doubts about this trend, read an interview with 14-year-old, New York Times-published constructor Ben Pall on the Wordplay blog.  Or do a crossword search on Twitter to learn how at this year's American Crossword Tournament, Dan Feyer, age 32, replaced Tyler Hinman, age 25, as champion.  If you don't wish to do any reading, just watch The Puzzle Brother's webcast of the tournament, or listen to "Fill Me In," a regular podcast production by crossword bloggers Ryan Hecht and Brian Cimmet.

The world of social media, the Internet and computer software has forever altered the crossword world, brining it to a new generation of fans and expanding the old past time's potential. Constructors, solvers, and editors agree that electronic tools have greatly enhanced the quality of puzzles, allowing the production of eye-popping grids with more lively language in their wide, empty spaces.

"If you look at some of the puzzles that have been created, for example Kevin Der holds the record for the least number of black squares, I don't think you could ever do that without computer help," said Matt Ginsberg, a crossword constructor who has made his own electronic clue database and was a pioneer in construction software. 

In addition to creating new possibilities with grid composition, more colorful phrases are coming into play.  References to obscure species of birds are being replaced by entries like "Don't Tase Me Bro" and "Your Fly Is Open."  Usage of modern lingo makes puzzles more appealing to young solvers.

"With computer assisted creation we can take more risks and not have to relay on the same tired entries," said puzzle constructor and blogger Brendan Emmett Quigley.

Constructors can tap into entry databases, instantly crosscheck the acceptability of an entry with colleagues, as well as avoid the tedium of the trial and error process involved when constructing by hand.  This has enabled talented veterans to achieve new feats of construction, while making it easier for upstarts to get their foot in the door.

"There are so many more young constructors now than there ever used to be. The New York Times did a whole week of teenage constructors," said podcaster and blogger Cimmet. "Certainly the fact that younger people are more facile with computers now than ever before makes it easier for them to jump into new challenges, like constructing a crossword."

Discussion boards like "CruciverbL" make the world of construction much more inviting.  Ginsberg sees them as being important in two ways.

"I think it's really helped the constructing community become a community.  I know all the other constructors, they know me, and by and large we met through CruciverbL.  Secondly, it helps us avoid mistakes.  If you don't know if a word is good enough to put in a puzzle, so you have CruciverbL and within an hour you have people telling you yes or no."

Blogs have made a similar contribution, by providing a forum for feedback, creating a community and tutoring newbies. "I learned a lot from the daily bloggers," said tournament champ Feyer.  "I wouldn't have gotten as deeply into the whole world of crosswords if I hadn't discovered the blogs."

Blogger Amy Reynaldo tries to use her blog to lure in the mildly interested and educate them in the ways of a crossword fiend: "Instead of putting aside an unfinished puzzle, you can find not just an answer grid, but explanations of the tougher clues, a description of the theme, background information on the less familiar words in the grid, and tips for navigating crosswords in general…I'm hoping to keep enjoying crosswords my whole life.  It's important that younger people pick up the habit too."

In addition to luring in potential crossword addicts, it keeps her connected.  "It's like finding your lost tribe," she said.  "A lot of people are the only crossword fans in their households, so we appreciate the opportunity to connect with like-minded people."

L.A. Times crossword editor Rich Norris agrees, "Blogs are almost like extended families. Readers start by sharing a common interest, and after a while they share parts of their lives. Puzzle solving, by its nature, is a solitary pursuit. The opportunity for sharing is an enriching experience."

Many bloggers, like Reynaldo and Rex Parker are also avid Twitter users.  Parker's blog has weekly posts of crossword musings from Twitter searches.

The availability of puzzles has also changed the crossword scene.  "The crossword has never been more popular in its entire life than it is today and that's exclusively because of the Internet," said Quigley.  "You're not limited to whatever newspaper you buy.  The crossword has really blossomed to a new level of popularity, because of the ease and simplicity of access."  He cites the popularity of crossword apps and the number of subscriptions to the New York Time's crossword page as evidence of this. "A lot of corporate clients are talking to me about setting up online puzzles because that's what people want," he added.

Constructor Merl Reagle, whose following tends to skew older, agrees that electronic solving is on the rise.  "Most of my younger friends really prefer the interactive version of the puzzle," said Reagle, who referenced top solver and five-time tournament champion Tyler Hinman as an example of an exclusively electronic solver.

Trends like these ensure that crosswords will have a strong presence in years to come, even if newspapers fold.  As a digital generation applies its tools to an analog pastime, the age-old question of "Do you solve in pen or pencil?" invites a new response: "Neither, I do it online."


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