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For the millions of people who do crosswords, the person behind the puzzle is always something of a mystery. What puzzler wouldn't want to know how a constructor thinks when putting together a puzzle? Or the secret rules that guide the selections of clues and answers? Or how to outsmart the constructor by understanding his mindset? A few tips about how to improve solving skills wouldn't hurt, either. Putting it all together in an accessible and witty "guide to life in the grid" is just what everybody wants and needs. CRUCIVERBALISM will help people become better solvers and have more fun doing crosswords. It will also pull back the curtain on puzzlemaking itself, outlining the history of crosswords, showing how they have evolved over the past century, and how rules and the mindsets of puzzle editors have changed over time. It will pass along the guidelines the author provides to his stable of puzzle constructors, and tidbits such as the "100 essential words" for the pursuit of crossword happiness. Finally, it will recount the decadelong battle between Old Guard and New Wave constructors, bringing in a cast of colorful characters living in a world of words. The book will be a combination of crossword selfhelp, wisdom, trivia and stories that will fascinate today's millions of avid puzzlers.
Crossfire: The Pipsqueak Manifesto
I remember the date when I declared war on the New York Times crossword puzzle: October 19, 1984. It was the day of the LOA outrage. My annoyance with the Times puzzle was simmering much of that fall—who can forget the affront to Good Times TV star Jimmie Walker, lumped into the clue "Comedian or former N.Y. mayor" for an answer that employed the less-than-dy-no-mite! spelling, Jimmy Walker? Then there was the infamous "parting words" clue for farewell, an answer that a plurality of solvers—and lexicographers—would regard as one word. But LOA was what pushed me over the edge. Or, rather, its clue did: "Seat of Wayne County, Utah."
Now, in the course of building a crossword puzzle, it is sometimes necessary to include the sequence L-O-A when you've got an exquisite stack of words that will work only if you can keep those three letters in the mix. Fair enough. The painless tradition is to give the clue "Mauna ___," for the famous volcano in Hawaii, and move on. No doubt Times puzzle editor Eugene Maleska wanted to find a fresh way of cluing LOA. But "Seat of Wayne County, Utah" was beyond the pale. Aside from the 364 residents of Loa, Utah, at the time (I looked it up) and possibly a few cross-country truck drivers, it was unlikely that anyone who sat down with the Times puzzle that day would have known the three-letter answer to the Wayne County clue.
A small matter, you say? Ha! The LOA incident epitomized what was ailing the sickly Times puzzle in those days. A formerly grand institution known for its daring innovations, delightful wordplay, and all-around cerebrally stimulating fun had been reduced to this: A three-block dead zone in the puzzle, where you could get the L and O and still not be sure of the answer unless your last name was Rand or McNally. Getting it right depended entirely on answering the crossing words correctly—and spelling them right, too, since you had no way of knowing if the seat of Wayne County was correctly spelled LOA, LOB, or LOC—or LOX, LOY, or LOZ, for that matter. That was a sorry predicament, but the truly annoying thing about the clue was what it reflected about the Times puzzle. You didn't know what the seat of Wayne County was, you didn't care what the seat of Wayne County was once you'd learned it, and you wouldn't ever use that information again in your life unless it came up again in the Times puzzle. Mauna Loa, on the other hand, was a place of some renown—there was a certain value attached to it beyond its use in puzzling; you might hope to visit it one day on a vacation in Hawaii, or you might feel you'd learned something interesting if, in a well-crafted puzzle, you found out that the phrase "mauna loa" means "long mountain." My apologies to the people of Loa, but "Seat of Wayne County, Utah" was a useless piece of information that made it into the Times puzzle solely because Eugene Maleska took a pedant's pleasure in flummoxing other people with obscure facts.
When the Wayne County crime against crosswords was committed, I had been publishing a newsletter, the Crossworder's Own Newsletter, for less than a year. Occasionally I'd take potshots at the Times puzzles for mistakes, pointless trivia, and their seeming hostility toward—or outright ignorance of—the contemporary world (Maleska once rejected a puzzle because he maintained that one answer, car seat, was a "forced" concept dreamed up by the puzzler. Tell that to his kids.). But now, post-LOA, I took up the battle against the Times as a crusade. Resentment against Maleska's regime had been brewing for years in the puzzle community, but taking on the Bigfoot of the business directly was considered lunacy. A strange parallel world had developed in the early 1980s as the best solvers and puzzlemakers in the country began flocking to Games magazine, even as the Times—which these aficionados had once revered—continued to reign in the public's mind as the ultimate in puzzling. It was still the most prestigious showcase for puzzlemakers.
I knew a lot of the expert puzzlers because I had taken up crosswords with a passion a few years earlier—becoming a cruciverbalist, as crossword enthusiasts sometimes like to call themselves —after having been just a casual solver in the past. But I did have a competitive streak and a good memory for the sort of facts that crop up in puzzles, and after entering a crossword contest on a whim in 1981, I was hooked. (The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, only a few years old at that point, has since become an institution among puzzlers and is still held at the Stamford Marriott each March.) I threw myself into learning how to solve puzzles faster, began building a collection of many hundreds of notecards recording unfamiliar words I encountered—yes, I was a tad obsessive about it—and in a matter of months I was winning tournaments. The quality of the puzzles at the tournaments, the fascinating people who made them and solved them, the general atmosphere of sparky intelligence and good humor at the events—all of this seemed worlds away from the dreary Times puzzle emanating from West 43rd Street in Manhattan seven days a week. The very people who were so lively and brilliant at the tournaments were often the same folks sending puzzles they'd constructed to Maleska and crossing their fingers in the hope that they hadn't violated any of his myriad strictures, thus inviting another one of his infamously vicious rejection letters.
This was an era when typical clues at the Times would refer to a "Famed soprano" or "First words of St. John's Gospel, Latin" (Answer: In principio erat). Fun, eh? Meanwhile, in what amounted to an underground movement, crossword tournaments were beginning to take off. The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was . . .