Will Shortz: America's Unlikeliest Movies Star

With a cast including a former President, a top baseball player and America's leading left-wing comedian, Wordplay, a film about The New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, is big news at the box office. But what makes him such a star? Rupert Cornwell fills in the blanks
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The Independent Culture

Suddenly, for us addicts, it all seems worthwhile. Every one of those minutes, hours and days spent wrestling with crossword puzzles - perfect guilty relaxation that banishes wives, editors, medical bills and the washing up to utter irrelevance. Now our obsession receives the honour it deserves.

Wordplay is America's cult movie of the moment, a documentary dealing with crossword puzzles that was a hit at the independent Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and has just opened in major cities throughout the US. Its cast includes a former President, a celebrity comedian, a top baseball player, and folk singer-songwriters Indigo Girls. But the true star is a balding 53-year-old who founded the annual puzzle-solving contest which forms the basis if the movie - Will Shortz, crosswords editor of The New York Times and hero (whether they love him or loathe him) for every cruciverbalist in the land.

Maybe crossword puzzles are not the ultimate key to human existence (even though it might be said that all men are equal before God, the law and the daily bout with the little grid of white and black squares buried in The New York Times' arts section). But for those who indulge they are a key of kinds.

As one of the Indigo Girls puts it: "You can equate crossword puzzles with songwriting, they give you a sense of faith that writer's block is not real." In other words, not only crossword puzzles, but all of life's problems, can be resolved if you keep plugging away. Or take Ellen Ripstein, who after many years of disappointment won Shortz's contest in 2001. "It's a kind of nerdy thing," she admits. "But it's neat. I had a boyfriend once, he tried to put me down and I said to him, 'Well, what are you the best in the country at?'."

How does a non-aficionado reply to that? As an English-born lover of crossword puzzles who now lives in the US, I would also add something else - that if you seek to learn the differences between Britain and America, you can do worse than study the two nations' ways with crosswords. Wordplay, of course, deals with the transatlantic variety, which tends to be more direct. In US crossword puzzles, as in most walks of American life, what you see is what you get.

In a British puzzle, the clues are more convoluted, with internal codes that aficionados instantly recognise. Soon a British solver learns to distinguish the foibles of each different compiler. Shortz's name appears on every New York Times puzzle. But he is only its editor, not its composer. The fiend who devises The Times, Guardian or Independent crossword remains forever anonymous - yet you feel you know his mind as well as that of your best friend.

I find American puzzles more accessible, even though they demand at least as great a range of general knowledge. Others beg to differ. The late Meredith Knox Gardner, greatest of all American cryptographers, who cracked the Soviet "Venona" telegrams and nailed a clutch of spies, found the home-grown variety too easy. For him, the real challenge was The Times of London puzzle. "You have to remember they are designed by Englishmen," he once told an interviewer, in a back-handed complement to our long national tradition of hypocrisy and never saying what we mean.

There are structural differences, too. American puzzles have many fewer black squares than their British equivalents. They use shorter words.

Abbreviations and plurals are commonplace, as are foreign words. They also contain tricks you'd never find in a British puzzle. Take this Thursday's in The New York Times. To solve it you had to realise that the word "point" fitted into a single square. Thus "pinpoint'"(clue "locate") interlocked with "pointless" (clue "inane"). Another puzzle I well remember depended on repetition of letters. Thus the answer to the clue "the world's oceans" was CCCCCCC.

Unlike the puzzles in British newspapers, the crossword in The New York Times grows harder as the week progresses. Devotees will know that the soul of a puzzle lies not in the answers but in the clues. On Monday these are straightforward. By Saturday they are monsters of opacity, ellipsis and multiple meaning. Early in the week, Shortz heavily flags his puns. By Saturday, they pop up anywhere.

The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and even The Wall Street Journal all have their own puzzles, but The New York Times' is the gold standard. Shortz - brainy but delightfully approachable for a crossword king - has been at it since he was nine years old. He found a university accommodating enough to allow him to take a degree in enigmatology, or the science of puzzles, and eventually became crossword editor at the Gray Lady, quickly imbuing his section with a wit and slyness for which the paper is not generally noted.

He now has followers in every walk of life. In Wordplay, Jon Stewart, the hugely popular anchor of the fake news Daily Show and 2006 Oscars host, refers to Shortz as the "Errol Flynn" of the crossword universe. We see Mike Mussina, starting pitcher for the New York Yankees, poring over a puzzle in the dug-out (Mussina, it should be said, is an economics graduate from Stanford). Bob Dole, one-time Republican presidential candidate, is another devotee, who in the movie dryly comments that "the whole 1996 campaign was a puzzle". The best known New York Times crossword fanatic however is Bill Clinton, the man who bested Dole in the election a decade ago. The 42nd President has been known to have knocked off the Wednesday puzzle in just six minutes, and the extra-large Sunday version in an hour. He, too, has found the exercise a comfort in his hours of greatest trial.

Shortz says that Clinton once told him that "the crossword was the only thing in the paper guaranteed to cheer him up" and back in August 1998 he needed all the cheering up he could get. Clinton was flying up for what promised to be a very fraught family holiday in Martha's Vineyard, with his Monica Lewinsky confession ringing in his ears. In the plane, the story goes, he was doing the crossword. Clue 46 down that day was "Meal for the humble?" For an instant, Clinton was stumped, only to break into slightly bemused laughter, according to an aide. "Here's one appropriate for today," he joked, as he filled in the answer: "Crow".