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The Puzzle Master


IU experience has helped alumnus become leading crossword expert

By Julie Mahomed and Julie Mahomed




What's a six-letter word for enigmatology? No, it's not puzzle, it's Shortz -- as in Will Shortz, the IU graduate who stars in the documentary "Wordplay". \nPuzzles are more than games to Shortz, whose passion for puzzles has produced a personalized degree and a prosperous career.\nShortz graduated in 1974 from IU's Individualized Major Program with a degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles. He is now the editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle, the Puzzlemaster on National Public Radio and author of numerous puzzle books. \nBefore Shortz was the feature of the documentary, which has created significant buzz for more than just puzzle fans, he started his passions for designing puzzles at young age. \nShortz published his first puzzle when he was 14 years old. At 15, he was a regular contributor to Dell Logic Puzzles, a game magazine. \n"My mother is a writer so it was always a natural thing to send things in (for publication)," Shortz said. "I was a puzzle-head when I was a kid," said Shortz, who completed his first puzzle when he was eight years old. \nHe had joked about majoring in puzzles as a kid growing up in Crawfordsville, Ind., not knowing that it was really possible. In fact, Shortz began to complete the requirements for an economics degree before his mother discovered the Individualized Major Program during his sophomore year at IU. \n"I consider myself extremely fortunate to have gone to IU, with its innovative Individualized Major Program," Shortz said. "This was hugely helpful with my puzzle career." \nThe Individualized Major Program has not changed since Shortz was at IU, said IMP Director Ray Hedin. Potential students are required to write a proposal for course topics and a final project, which is then approved or modified by a faculty panel. Courses can be from any department and the final project can be a research paper, creative project or professional internship. \nShortz designed courses about constructing crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, math puzzles and the psychology of puzzles, among others. His final project was a thesis on the history of American word puzzles before 1860. \n"My degree gave me credentials that still no one else in my field has," Shortz said. He is still the only person in the world to hold a degree in enigmatology. \nWhile one may assume a puzzle person might spend all his free time with a dictionary, Shortz was no recluse during his college years -- instead, he was an active member of Greek life at IU. He was secretary, rush chairman and then president of the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity. He even became the secretary of the Interfraternity Council and champion of an all-fraternity tennis tournament. \nAlthough his shy, studious nature paints him as a "non-frat guy," Shortz said fraternity life, especially his responsibilities recruiting new members as rush chairman, helped him overcome his shyness. \nShortz remembers sharing "how come" mystery puzzles with his fraternity brothers. \n"A how come mystery is a puzzle that poses a curious or paradoxical situation, and players ask yes-or-no questions to try to discover the solution," Shortz said. "I remember these being very popular for a week."\nDuring the 1973 spring semester, Shortz published 11 sets of brain teasers in the Indiana Daily Student. Shortz also crafted an Indiana Challenge puzzle for the IU Alumni Association's 150th anniversary in 2004. He has contributed puzzles to the IUAA's magazine. \nAs editor of The New York Times crossword, Shortz chooses the best puzzles for publication from the 60 to 75 he receives each week. Because the difficulty of the crossword increases each day, Shortz advises puzzlers to start with a Monday puzzle then work through the week. Crossword puzzles should be attacked with the same philosophy as any other predicament -- start with what you know, Shortz said, and the rest will become easier to figure out. \nEverything that is newsworthy enough to appear in the newspaper is fair game for inclusion in The New York Times crossword puzzle, Shortz said. While the crossword used to be filled with obscure words from unabridged dictionaries, Shortz has supplemented traditional subjects with modern culture. But while the Monday Times puzzle has become easier, only the elite can complete the puzzle at the end of the week. \nElite crossword puzzlers share the limelight with Shortz in "Wordplay", which tells Shortz's story and follows the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. "Wordplay" also includes interviews with celebrity crossword puzzlers Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, the Indigo Girls, New York Yankee Mike Mussina and Jon Stewart, whose presence in the film shows that crosswords are not just for nerds. \nIt seems that people who are busiest are the ones who do crossword puzzles in their spare minutes, Shortz said. Crossword puzzlers are people who love words, like a challenge and like to exercise their brains. \n"The people they bring me into contact with are intellectual, educated and well-rounded," said Shortz. "Crossword puzzles stretch my brain and they never get old." \nMore people already seem interested in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, founded by Shortz in 1978 and featured in "Wordplay". Last year about 500 puzzlers competed to be the best crossword puzzler in the nation. This year, Shortz said, the tournament's Web site has been flooded with requests for information and a large spike in participants is expected. \n"I've heard from a lot of people that they will start doing crossword puzzles," said Shortz. "It's making them slightly cool again and leading more people to try them." \nThe New York Times crossword puzzle appears daily in the newspaper and "Wordplay" is now showing in Bloomington at Kerasotes ShowPlace East 11.

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