Putting Bro Hugs In The Crossword

Crossword puzzles have a bit of a stodgy reputation. But in the last decade a new crop of young crossword makers has arrived on the scene, using contemporary clues and everyday language.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we definitely don't make the make this mistake here at WEEKEND EDITION, but there are those who think that crossword puzzles appeal to a mostly older crowd. Perhaps it's the dated clues and the obscure language.

But Hans Anderson says there is a new crop of young puzzle-makers who are pushing to make crosswords more contemporary. And they aren't worried if some of the answers might not be appropriate at the breakfast table.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING PAPER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sure.

BEN TAUSIG: Yeah, leave it up.

HANS ANDERSON, BYLINE: Ben Tausig is opening up The New York Times to find the crossword puzzle. He's in his home office in Harlem. It's a Wednesday and I've asked him to solve today's puzzle.

TAUSIG: Confident crossword solvers' implement would be a pen, like us.

ANDERSON: The New York Times is considered the gold standard of crosswords and I want to hear his review of this one.

TAUSIG: It's not a bad puzzle. I mean it's got some - there's some junk in it.

ANDERSON: The junk Tausig is talking about is crossword-ese, words that you probably won't say in casual conversation or at any other time, except if you're talking about today's crossword. Words like Etui, which is a small ornamental case for holding needles.

Tausig makes crosswords for a living and tries to keep crossword-ese out of his work. He started making puzzles about a decade ago when he was in his early 20's. He was on a long plane ride, solving the crossword in an in-flight magazine

TAUSIG: Which are always terrible or usually terrible, and I just got bored with it. And I started trying to fill out the grid with words that made sense. And it was really hard to do. But I got fascinated by that challenge.

ANDERSON: When he got home, he kept constructing puzzles. He found an online community of crossword constructors. And pretty soon he was published in U.S.A. Today, then the L.A. Times, and then The New York Times. But while Tausig was happy to be published, he was a little frustrated by his audience. He thought crosswords weren't for people his age.

TAUSIG: They're generally pitched at people 50 and over. There didn't seem to be a lot of crosswords for younger solvers.

ANDERSON: So Tausig started making those crosswords. His puzzles became part of an emerging indie crossword scene. Aside from using more everyday language, Tausig's puzzles are a little bit coarser. For example, most crosswords use something referred to as the breakfast test, basically anything that would be unsavory at breakfast isn't in your crossword. Tausig doesn't worry about this. In fact, he gets really excited when he talks about the word enema.

TAUSIG: Process of elimination, internal purge, inside job.

ANDERSON: There are also more contemporary references. I find Lady Gaga, Pokemon, and bro hugs in his puzzle Inkwell, which is published in alt weeklies around the country. Inkwell is also available online, which is a common way for indie puzzles to get to their solvers.

Ben's latest project, and main gig, is distributed online only. It's called The American Values Club Crossword, a title which embodies the snarky tone of his puzzles. And for this crossword, he's helped by other like-minded constructors. Most of whom are on the younger side.

(APPLAUSE)

WILL SHORTZ: And our new champion, perfect in 10 minutes and 27 seconds, the youngest champion in the history of the event is Tyler Hinman.

(APPLAUSE)

ANDERSON: Tyler Hinman makes puzzles for Tausig. He was featured in the documentary "Wordplay," which is about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Spoiler alert: He won that tournament at age 20 and has since won five times.

But many solvers are still used to a standard puzzles. I looked around for Tausig's target audience, young crossword solvers with a little extra time on their hands. More specifically, bartenders, right before happy hour began, just off U Street in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

ANDERSON: Jacki Andre works at DC9. She's behind the bar with a big book of puzzles, the kind you'd find at an airport newsstand. When I ask her about Inkwell, which comes free in the City Paper...

JACKI ANDRE: That puzzle it's - you know, I do it every week just because it's there but it's not my favorite. The way the clues are written, I guess, don't really agree with me. And also there's a lot of references to modern day culture that I don't quite understand.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: Emilio Delgado likes those references, plus he can actually finish Tausig's puzzle. He's doing Inkwell like he does every Friday at the 1905 Lounge.

EMILIO DELGADO: They're funny. They're very witty. The guy who writes them is very skilled in his wit.

ANDERSON: That guy who writes them, Ben Tausig and his contemporary, puzzles are never going to please everyone. But for now, they've carved out a place in the crossword community.

For NPR News in Washington, I'm Hans Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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