A clue to solving crossword puzzles: Have fun, say Oregon experts (2023)

What’s a good looker? The crossword puzzle answer: Eyes. A brief and clever clue to the word “number”: A dentist. If you’re not one of the millions of Americans enjoying a daily crossword puzzle, you’re missing out on wit, puns and fun. And maybe much more.

Scientists have found that working crosswords and other wordplay games improves mental flexibility, memory, concentration and mood. The pastime became even more popular during the stay-at-home pandemic, when people wanted to be distracted and entertained.

“Solving crosswords eliminates worries,” says Will Shortz, New York Times crossword editor and National Public Radio puzzle master. “They make you a calmer and more focused person.”

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Shortz is also the founder of the world’s oldest, largest and most prestigious crossword event, the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, with the 45th version taking place March 31-April 2 in Stamford, Connecticut.

The cerebral and collegial gathering directs the spotlight on a brain-teasing hobby that has attracted fans — some obsessed — for more than a century.

The 2023 crossword competition has more than 750 challengers participating in person and more than 300 people who have registered to try to solve the puzzles virtually, an option adopted during the pandemic.

Eight people from Oregon have registered to compete in this year’s tournament, says Shortz.

“Crosswords are popular everywhere, but especially in highly educated areas,” he says. “So I’m not surprised that Oregon would have many participants in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.”

(Video) How to Solve Crossword Puzzles

Shortz and others say the hobby helps people who are curious make connections and create order in the chaos of the universe.

A small 2023 poll commissioned by Unscramble words found that 38% of baby boomers, 31% of GenX and 15% of millennials challenge themselves with a crossword on a regular basis, according to StudyFinds.

Themes for crosswords cover every subject, from craft beer to Shakespeare. People hoping to improve their vocabulary practice with crosswords created in all written languages, from Ancient Greek to Ukrainian, even Esperanto.

Many of the 1,000 people surveyed said they are continuing a longtime family tradition of finding letter patterns, filling in blanks and holding up their win, something ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence (AI) systems can’t entirely accomplish.

Dr.Fill, a computer program created in Eugene by AI expert Matt Ginsberg, solved the seven puzzles at the timed 2021 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament faster than any human.

Ginsberg’s program had been competing since 2012 as crossword constructors continued to make it more difficult for robots. Dr.Fill knows the number of letters of the answer, but does not understand some of the clues, what Ginsberg calls ”common sense knowledge put in interesting ways.”

While the gameshow Jeopardy is about facts, crosswords are deliberately vague and confusing, Ginsberg told the public radio show Science Friday.

Dr.Fill cannot understand spoonerisms (an intentional speech error such as switching “jelly beans” to “belly jeans”) or homonyms (words with identical pronunciations but different spellings and meanings) or answers that read backwards.

(Video) Can 4 Average People Beat A Pro Crossword Puzzler?

But people can.

Crossword puzzle creator and teacher Steve Weyer of Ashland wants more people to, as he says, “think outside of the box as well as inside the boxes.” There’s more to stimulating your brain and providing a sense of victory than filling in rows and columns in a tidy grid.

Crossword puzzles can be shaped like petals on a flower or be arranged in a spiral. A square may require more than one letter. That’s called a rebus.

Solving crosswords isn’t always a solitary effort; couples who share the hobby know how to write a proposal with one. Some people order crossword tombstones.

It’s actually more than a hobby, says Weyer, 74. “Crosswords have been interwoven in our culture through movies, theater and music,” he says, mentioning “Crossword” by rock band Jethro Tull and “Four Down And Twelve Across” by country music singer and songwriter George Strait.

During the Great Depression, the low-cost form of entertainment was wildly popular. Crosswords were added to newspapers, bookstores sold out of dictionaries and libraries were swamped, says Weyer, who teaches about crosswords to adults enrolled in OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

The first volume of Simon & Schuster’s The Crossword Puzzle Book was published in April 1924.

The next year, Disney released the short film “Alice Solves the Puzzle,” the musical revue “Puzzles of 1925″ opened on Broadway, and clothes made of black-and-white checked fabric were fashionable, says Weyer.

The documentary “Wordplay,” set at the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, captures tension among top solvers competing for a prize of $4,000. Some of the devoted crossword players in the documentary are former president Bill Clinton, comedian Jon Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns and folk rock musicians Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls.

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Weyer also constructs original crosswords and has submitted a few to the New York Times. Competition is strong and waiting to hear if a crossword has been accepted and when it will be published can take months, even years.

Ginsberg, who created Dr.Fill, has had about 50 of his puzzles appear in the New York Times. Other constructors use his clue database, and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is scored using software he wrote.

Andrew J. Ries spent four years in isolated La Pine, southwest of Bend, creating puzzles full time and garnering game subscribers to his ariespuzzles.com site. Over his career as a word puzzle entrepreneur, he sold 34 original crosswords to the New York Times, receiving $750 for a daily puzzle and more than double for a larger Sunday puzzle.

Even with his success, Ries says it’s a labor of love.

“You really have to hustle for not a very large amount of pay,” says Ries, who moved for a job in Tucson, Arizona, in 2021 and now only creates crosswords part-time for his site and Vox.com. “I still have the creative outlet of writing puzzles, but I also have a nice balance of working and hanging out with friends.”

Weyer sees being a cruciverbalist as a pursuit, a “‘Vitamin X’ mental supplement, diversion, distraction, addiction, relaxation, pastime, challenge...”

“You have conquered something,” says Weyer, who was captivated by crosswords three decades ago and continues to find them engaging.

“Good crosswords are fun; they include puns, invented words and phrases, ambiguous clues and wordplay,” says the retired website and software developer who worked for Stanford University, Xerox PARC, Atari, HP (Hewlett-Packard) and Apple.

(Video) How to Create a Crossword Puzzle | WIRED

Weyer’s programming and AI work requires precise, literal computer languages. Solving crosswords, however, is not a linear process. He fills in disparate areas of the puzzle and switches between across and down clues.

“It’s exciting to see sections connect, and answers begin to emerge,” he says. “Sometimes there are other layers to solve, like a a meta puzzle within a puzzle.”

In both his career and crossword work, he becomes absorbed in a problem-solving flow state: assembling sections of words or code together, and recognizing and generalizing patterns, he says.

His advice to crossword beginners: If frustrated, ask a friend for help, look up a clue online or have an app reveal one letter. Better yet, take a break.

“I think many people have had the experience of putting a puzzle down for awhile, perhaps overnight,” he says, “and when they pick it up again, they know more answers.”

MORE ON CROSSWORDS Meet Oregon’s competitors in the 2023 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

jeastman@oregonian.com | @janeteastman

(Video) Solving the NYT Saturday puzzle

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