Stump the Puzzle Master

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Shortz on NPR

Will Shortz is the puzzlemaster for NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, when he often confounds listeners with riddles and word games. We test his ability to solve puzzles. Shortz is also the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

And I'm Liane Hansen.

CONAN: And here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. Auto company General Motors said today it would cut some 30,000 manufacturing jobs in North America and close a dozen of its plants in an effort to reduce costs and remain competitive.

And in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute today, Vice President Dick Cheney labeled as `utterly false' accusations that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to justify the use of force in Iraq. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

HANSEN: Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, the battle on Capitol Hill over what to do in Iraq. The stakes are high overseas and here at home. We'll talk about how the question of what to do in Iraq is challenging both parties. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: Regular listeners may be curious as to why Liane is co-hosting. Well, she and I have been colleagues at NPR for 25 years and we've been married for 23 of them. We hardly ever work together, though; in fact, we hardly ever see each other. I work Monday through Friday while she works Wednesday through "Weekend Edition Sunday."

HANSEN: So this is basically a shameless ploy to get some time together, and we decided to try it on this week that focuses on family gatherings. One thing we have shared, however, is a friendship with Will Shortz, the puzzle editor of The New York Times. He invites Neal to do play-by-play of the finals of his annual crossword puzzle tournament and, of course, he joins me as NPR's puzzlemaster on Sunday mornings. Yesterday we actually had Neal on as our contestant, and today Will joins us from the studios of Kressler Media Productions(ph) in New York.

Hey, Will.

WILL SHORTZ (Puzzlemaster, "Weekend Edition Sunday"): Hey, Liane. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Will.

HANSEN: All right. I'm gonna...

SHORTZ: Hey, you guys work pretty well together, I think.

HANSEN: You think? You think?

SHORTZ: Yeah.

HANSEN: A partnership made in heaven. I have a puzzle for you. I have a question for you. All right?

SHORTZ: Uh-oh. OK.

HANSEN: See if you can answer this one. What's...

SHORTZ: Yeah.

HANSEN: ...the capital of Ohio?

SHORTZ: That would be Columbus.

HANSEN: Yes. Well, the reason we're asking that...

SHORTZ: Or the letter C...

HANSEN: Yeah.

SHORTZ: ...if you want to do wordplay. Yeah.

HANSEN: Except do you remember the puzzle we did yesterday and we were doing state capitals?

SHORTZ: Yeah.

HANSEN: And you had us going from Dayton to Denver?

SHORTZ: Did I say Dayton?

CONAN: Yup.

HANSEN: Yup. Gotcha.

SHORTZ: You can't--is it too late to edit that out?

HANSEN: I'm afraid so, and we thought we'd bring it up since earlier in the program we were talking a lot about Dayton, but oh yeah, people picked up on it right away. We also discovered that the basketball team the Bulls could actually come between the--what was it?--the Celtics and the Bucks.

CONAN: Yeah.

HANSEN: The Bucks and the Celtics.

SHORTZ: Yeah.

HANSEN: So--oh, you know what? We all make mistakes, even you, Mr. Know-It-All.

SHORTZ: Oh, yeah, yeah.

HANSEN: Actually, we've got some serious e-mails, before we get to the ones that are trying to nail you to the wall. There's a woman who wrote, Jane Fandray(ph)--I hope I'm pronouncing her name correctly--she's in Salisbury, Maryland, and maybe briefly you could describe this. She wants to know about the process of creating crossword puzzles. How do you do it?

SHORTZ: Well, you--most crosswords, you know, nowadays have themes to them or the long answers tie together in some interesting or funny way, so you start with those. You put those in your grid. They have to--and then you plot your pattern of black squares around them. And you know if you rotate a crossword grid 180 degrees, the pattern of black squares will look the same as it did right-side up. So you have to put your black squares in positions where you think you can create a grid around your them, and then you actually do the construction. You polish it as best you can. You know, get rid of those--that 50-mile-long river in Romania and the Celebese ox, you know, words like that, and you polish it and you write your clues at the end.

CONAN: And there are standard dimensions for this, 17-by-17, 25-by-25.

SHORTZ: Yeah. For some reasons, crosswords are--almost always have odd dimensions, so a daily crossword is usually 15-by-15 squares, a Sunday puzzle is usually 21-by-21.

CONAN: On behalf of all of those who've ever suffered at the hands of the puzzlemaster, we have an e-mail challenge today. If you have a puzzle you'd like him to try, send it along to us: totn@npr.org. Or if you have questions about crosswords, cryptics or about the history and future of puzzles, our phone number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And again, the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And we have an e-mail that was sent in earlier, this from Andy Dubak(ph): `You're walking down a corridor to a TALK OF THE NATION studio and you come to a fork in the hall. You don't know the correct way. There's an office in between this fork where identical twin brothers work. Surely one of them will know how to get to the studio. You knock on the door. One of them comes to the door. Since they both look the same, you don't know which one it is, if one of the twins always tells the truth and the other always tells lies, which is the one question you can ask so that you receive the correct directions to the studio?'

SHORTZ: I would say--let me think this through--but I think you ask if--let me think about this. If you were to ask--if I ask the other person which way to go, what would he say? Let me think if that works. So if you're talking to the person who is--always tells the truth and ask him, you know, `What will the other person say?' The other person always lies, so you get the wrong answer. And if I talk to the liar and--I think, yeah, you take the answer that the person gives you and then go in the opposite direction.

CONAN: That's exactly right. The answer suggested by Andy is `What direction would your brother give?' and go in the opposite direction.

HANSEN: I may--should remind some of our e-mailers, if you're going to send us the puzzle for Will, it would help if you did have the answer, because at least we could figure it out. Here's one that does have an answer, Will. It's from Alan Meyer in Newberg, Oregon. I'm looking for the name of the capital and largest city of a country in the Western Hemisphere, and its anagram--Neal's favorite--its anagram, a tree or shrub found in the United States.

SHORTZ: Huh. So say that once more?

HANSEN: OK. The name of the capital and largest city of a country in the Western Hemisphere--OK, capital city--and if you anagram it, you get a tree or shrub that is found in the United States.

SHORTZ: Hmm. Well, this is just off the top of my head. It's probably wrong. I was thinking Caracas--I can't believe it's that big--and does that anagram into cascara? Is that a shrub?

HANSEN: Yes, it does. Yes, it does.

CONAN: Don't you hate him?

SHORTZ: Oh, man.

HANSEN: No, we don't hate him. We don't hate him. But you got a...

SHORTZ: Let's see. Can I retire now? I have only--I can only go down from here.

HANSEN: Well, you know, Will, this is very interesting, because it puts you in the position that all of our listeners have been put in for the last 18 years.

CONAN: Did you bring a pencil and paper into the studio to write all these down?

SHORTZ: I did. Oh, you bet I did.

CONAN: I guested--came into the studio yesterday for "Weekend Edition Sunday" on the puzzle, I had an abacus, you know, a little, you know, word processor, pen and paper. I was ready for anything. Thank heavens it wasn't anagrams. Here's another one: Take a nine-letter word that might describe someone in, for example, the police or the Army, add one consonant somewhere in the middle of the word to make a 10-letter word that would describe someone who does not know about a particular topic.

SHORTZ: Uh-huh. I can get that. It's uniformed and uninformed.

HANSEN: Uh. You're just extraordinary. You're--what...

SHORTZ: This is--I can only go down from here. I've lucked out so much.

HANSEN: Yeah, no. Do you go into like a zen mode and it's kind of like the Magic 8-Ball, the answer floats up to the surface, you've been doing it for so long?

SHORTZ: I have no idea where these come from.

HANSEN: All right. Well...

SHORTZ: No idea.

HANSEN: ...here's one. Name the longest word in the English language that has only one syllable.

SHORTZ: There's a tie for that. It could be strengths and it could be screetched, and there are a few others. Strengths is interesting because it has only one vowel, in addition to one syllable. There might actually be something longer. Screetched, S-C-R-E-E-T-C-H-E-D. I'm not sure.

HANSEN: Well, Jim in Louisville, Kentucky, suggested that actually straight works.

SHORTZ: Uh-huh. Well, strengths works--let's see, straight is S-T--that is eight and strengths is--sorry.

CONAN: Well, if you put an S on straight...

SHORTZ: I think that's one more, yeah.

HANSEN: Well, yeah.

CONAN: You put an S on straight, you get the same number of letters.

HANSEN: Straights.

CONAN: Straights.

SHORTZ: There we go. That's it. Yeah.

HANSEN: Yeah. Well, there you go. Got it in one. Got it in one. You have any more?

CONAN: Let's get some listeners on the line, and if you'd like to join us, by the way, the number is (800) 989-8255, and that e-mail address is still totn@npr.org. And let's talk with Lisa. Lisa's calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

LISA (Caller): Hi. I'm so happy to talk to you.

CONAN: Well, you're on the puzzlemaster.

SHORTZ: Well, thank you.

LISA: Great, great. Liane and Will, I hear you every Sunday morning, sometimes if I don't go to church I hear you twice.

HANSEN: Oh.

SHORTZ: Shh.

LISA: I want to know, Will, my son and I are both now addicted to sudoku puzzles.

SHORTZ: Yeah.

LISA: How do you like them? I've noticed that when I get the puzzle, my morning paper, that squares are filled in symmetrically. I know there must be a mathematical sort of formula to this. How do you do it?

SHORTZ: Well, I tell you, virtually all sudoku puzzles are created by computer. The ones in my books are all computer created. And it doesn't mean someone just pushed a button to make it. You know, you try to make an elegant puzzle and you have to--first of all, to write the program for the computer to create sudoku puzzles, you have to completely understand the puzzles and all the ways, all the logical ways that you can do to solve them.

CONAN: I think what he's saying is that though they're created by computer, but somebody gets paid for them anyway.

LISA: I figured that. Thank you.

SHORTZ: Good. Good, Neal. That about sums it up.

CONAN: Yup. Thanks for the call, Lisa.

HANSEN: Will, a lot of people want to know, too, how it is you got into this business. We know you have a degree in enigmatology, which is a very unusual degree to have, and you had to take various courses that were puzzle related, but how did people test you? I mean, how did someone, like, test you on a dissertation on, you know, the logic of number puzzles or something? What--I mean, what kind of course work did you actually have to do?

SHORTZ: Well, as you might imagine--first of all, I went to Indiana University where, as you might imagine, there were no courses on puzzles. I had to make them all up myself. And, you know, I'd go into the English department and find a professor who would work with me on word puzzles. I took math puzzle courses with professors in math and logic, and puzzles in philosophy and so on, and for each course, you know, it would be different. I would write a paper. For my course on crossword puzzles, every two weeks or so I took an original crossword into my professor's office. I would sit beside him as he solved it and critiqued it.

CONAN: Hmm. When did you know, though, that you wanted to do this?

SHORTZ: Well, when I was in the eighth grade, when asked to write a paper on what I wanted to do with my life, I said I wanted to be a professional puzzlemaker. And can you imagine what kind of--what other eighth-grader would think such a thing?

CONAN: I ended up playing second base for the Yankees.

HANSEN: Right. And I'm a star on Broadway. So some certain dreams do come true. Do you ever get stumped?

SHORTZ: Well, all the time. Sure. I tell you, there are some really hard sudoku I haven't been able to crack yet. Yeah, I get stumped all the time.

CONAN: We're talking with puzzlemaster Will Shortz. He's also the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times. If you'd like to join us, it's (800) 989-8255, or you can send us an e-mail, totn@npr.org.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Peter, and Peter's calling from a place which is a puzzle to pronounce, Olathe (pronounced o-LA-thee) Kansas. Is that right?

PETER (Caller): Not quite. It's called Olathe (pronounced o-LAY-tha).

CONAN: Olathe. OK. Go ahead.

PETER: OK. Well, I have a puzzle for Liane and Neal because I'm sure Will probably knows the answer to this one.

HANSEN: No!

CONAN: Oh, thanks a bunch, Peter.

HANSEN: That wasn't part of the bargain.

PETER: Here we go. It's a five-letter word, has four vowels in it, and if you remove all the vowels, the word is still pronounced the same. What is the word?

SHORTZ: I can give you...

HANSEN: Five letters...

SHORTZ: I can give you hints, if you want. Go on.

HANSEN: Oh good. Start, Will. Hint. Five-letter word, all vowels...

CONAN: See, I was thinking ...(unintelligible), but...

SHORTZ: Four of the five, and I'll give you a hint, the consonant comes first and it's followed by four vowels.

HANSEN: OK.

CONAN: Phew.

SHORTZ: And...

HANSEN: Animal, vegetable or mineral?

PETER: Could be anything?

SHORTZ: It's something that you might see outside a movie theater.

CONAN: Queue.

PETER: Exactly right.

SHORTZ: Bravo. Bravo.

HANSEN: Nice. Very good.

PETER: Yeah.

HANSEN: Very good.

PETER: Thank you, Will. I love the program on the morning. It's really great. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thanks very much, Peter.

SHORTZ: Thanks a lot.

PETER: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And by the way, it turns out that we may have maligned you at the beginning of this, Will. We checked the transcript from yesterday morning, and you did not say that the capital of Ohio was Dayton...

SHORTZ: No.

CONAN: ...or that we were doing capital--state capitals. That was me who said we were doing state capitals.

HANSEN: Oh.

CONAN: So ...(unintelligible).

SHORTZ: Yeah, my puzzle was Dover to Denver.

CONAN: Dover to Denver.

HANSEN: Dover to Denver.

CONAN: All right.

SHORTZ: Yeah.

HANSEN: Neal...

CONAN: Let's...

HANSEN: ...we're taking back that lapel pin you did not get.

CONAN: I have to turn in my dictionary now.

HANSEN: That's it. I'm afraid so. Do we have callers, e-mails? Do you have one? I have puzzles, but I don't have the answers, so I have...

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is John. John's calling from Groton, Massachusetts.

JOHN (Caller): Hello, Will. This is John. How are you?

SHORTZ: Hi, John.

JOHN: I have a puzzle. It's kind of a logic puzzle. Being an engineer, it's my favorite kind.

SHORTZ: OK.

JOHN: So you're outside a room and the door is closed and there's a lightbulb in the center of the room. There's three switches. You can flick them any amount of times or any amount you'd like, but you can only open the door once. How can you definitively tell which switch turns on the light?

SHORTZ: OK. Let me think about this. You--OK, you have the three switches. One of them you turn on. In fact, you turn two of them on and you wait a minute. Then you turn one of them off. Then you walk in the room. If the lightbulb is on, then it means the switch that you have left on is the--that switch goes to that bulb. If it's off, then you go up and feel the lightbulb on the ceiling. If it's warm, that means the lightbulb was on for a little while, and that means it connects to the switch that you had turned on and off. If the lightbulb, though, is cold, that means it was never turned on and it has to be the third switch.

JOHN: Excellent. Perfect.

HANSEN: Wow.

CONAN: John, thanks very much.

JOHN: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

HANSEN: Will, what are your favorite kinds of puzzles? I mean, I think we all have them--mathematical. I happen to be a fan of anagrams. Neal is not at all a fan of anagrams.

CONAN: I like geography.

HANSEN: He likes geography. I can't stand the periodic table. I mean, do you have favorites?

SHORTZ: Yeah, yeah. Well, I tell you, I have become addicted by sudoku since April.

HANSEN: Yeah.

SHORTZ: And cryptic crosswords and the crosswords of the British style I love. I love Friday- and Saturday-level New York Times crosswords that are, you know, just a real good, tough test of your puzzle-solving ability.

CONAN: Last...

SHORTZ: But really, you know, any kind of puzzle. It's a jigsaw puzzle, you name it. If it's a challenge, I'll do it.

CONAN: Last Saturday's puzzle was a real bear, at least for me.

HANSEN: Did you hear the story about the guy who was filling out this, like, 3,000, 8,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and he was almost finally getting it and there was one piece missing, it turned out his dog ate it?

SHORTZ: Oh.

HANSEN: Isn't that terrible?

CONAN: Here's another puzzle. We got this from Ed Green(ph). How many times during a day is the minute hand perpendicular to the hour hand?

SHORTZ: Wow. Perpendicular to the hour hand? How many times a day? Well, let's do it for an hour. You know we're starting at noon, say, and they are perpendicular, and then as you work around, and they'll be perpendicular again a little after 1:00, but they will have been perpendicular once between that, too. So--uh-huh. So let's say how many times do they connect between midnight and midnight? That would be, I believe, 11 times, and then you have to double that because--for that time in between, so up to 22. And then because we're going 24 hours a day, I'm saying 44.

CONAN: That's what Ed Green said, and he's in the mathematics and computer science department at North Georgia College and State University.

HANSEN: You're pretty amazing, Will. And finally, I guess, I mean, do you feel like when you go on the world puzzle championships, you're kind of--your bag is increased every time you come back?

SHORTZ: Yes, it does. I always bring back books, puzzles, everything. Absolutely.

HANSEN: Well, it's been a real pleasure having you on the program today, Will, and to talk to you today. So thanks a lot for all the fun you've given us.

SHORTZ: Well, this was a lot of fun.

HANSEN: OK. Take care, hon.

SHORTZ: You, too.

HANSEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

CONAN: And I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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