Mike Shenk And His Crossword Puzzle, Solved! On Tuesday, we posted on our web site the crossword used as the final puzzle at the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Mike Shenk, author of the puzzle and puzzle constructor for the Wall Street Journal, talks about how to create tough puzzles.
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Mike Shenk And His Crossword Puzzle, Solved!

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Mike Shenk And His Crossword Puzzle, Solved!

Mike Shenk And His Crossword Puzzle, Solved!

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: One moderately difficult for the C level final, one very difficult for the B level final, and one, well, pick your own adjective - diabolical, satanic, impossible. The host of the ACPT, Will Shortz, settled for extremely difficult. And, well, what the puzzle master says is good enough for me.

TALK OF THE NATION: talk@npr.org. You can take a look at the puzzle, the three sets of clues, and join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

People who create crosswords are called constructors, and the author of this puzzle is Mike Shenk, who constructs puzzles for the Wall Street Journal where he's the puzzle editor. And he joins us from our bureau in New York. Mike, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

MIKE SHENK: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

: And I should explain that at the final in Brooklyn, the three top solvers in each division compete on stage. There are huge puzzle grids set up on easels, and there's a crowd of, what, 8- or 900 of their fellow puzzle people watching as they scribble their answers in magic marker. Mike, you construct puzzles for a living. Is it interesting to watch people try to solve one of yours, to actually watch them there on stage?

SHENK: Oh, it's a lot of fun. It's - first of all, you never get to see people solve your puzzles in general, so any time you get to do that it's fun. But watching them try to match wits with a puzzle as hard as this is especially fun.

: You, I guess, every once in a while get to look over their shoulders as they're trying to solve it on the subway, but other than that, a rare opportunity.

SHENK: That's pretty much it. Yeah.

: And for this special puzzle, I wonder, do you - well, first, about puzzles in general, do you start with the answers first and then write their clues or is it vice versa?

SHENK: You always start with the grid first. Sometimes you might have an answer you'd love to put in the puzzle, and so you plant that word in the puzzle, but the grid always has to come first. And a lot of puzzles have themes. So if you're doing a themed puzzle, that comes first. But a puzzle like this final puzzle doesn't have a theme, so it's just picking interesting words.

: And then you write the clues. And for this, when you have three sets of clues, do you start with the easier ones first or the most difficult?

SHENK: I started by thinking what I could do for the hardest clues. And while you're thinking of that kind of clues, sometimes you wind up saying that's not hard enough and you put it down for one of the easy ones. But the hard ones are the hardest to come up with. It's the hardest part for me just as it is for the solver, so.

: Well, let's take one across in this puzzle, for example. And the clue - the answer - I don't mean to give it away, people, if you haven't done the puzzle - but the answer is Bambi. And the clue on the C level, that's the easiest, is Disney film set in a forest. And that's, well, that's pretty easy. The B level is title character who, quote, "came into the world in the middle of a thicket." And I guess you can puzzle that one out. But the C level - or the A level rather clue, this I thought was just a torturous clue, flower's bud.

SHENK: Yeah. When you're writing a clue for the final puzzle, the one thing you like to do is try and think of any related words to the answer that have other meanings that can be used in a misleading way. And so you'll see that all throughout the clues in this puzzle, words that seem to be saying one thing and actually are something else when you get the answer. And so when I hit on flower as being a character in Bambi, I said, oh, there's got to be something there.

: Yes. Thumper would have been too easy.

SHENK: Yeah. That probably would have been a giveaway, yeah.

: And at least, one of the solvers in the finals - of the nine solvers in the three sets of finals, one of them tried to figure out flower's bud and they were trying to work out the biological idea of what the flower bud was called.

SHENK: Right. She had an answer in there that I don't know what it means. Maybe it really is a flower bud, but...

: It wasn't the right answer.


SHENK: It wasn't the right answer.

: And it messed up that whole quadrant of the puzzle, and indeed, at the end she had to leave that unfinished. Nevertheless, we're talking with Mike Shenk, who's the author of the puzzle that was used at the final of the championships for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament last weekend in Brooklyn, which is hosted by Will Shortz, puzzle master for WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY, and of course puzzle editor for The New York Times. Mike Shenk is the puzzle editor of The Wall Street Journal. 800-989-8255; email us talk@npr.org. And this is Luke calling us from Buford in North Carolina.

LUKE: Hey. How are you this afternoon?

: Very well. Thanks.

LUKE: Listen, I started out and I tried the most difficult clues at first before I went to bed and tried them again in the morning. And I would have constructed it over time, but I knew I had this 3:40 deadline today.

: Mm-hmm.

LUKE: So I went to the medium set. And on the original one for the Caruso there, I thought operetta fit in there. And what a jalapeno consumer would be seeking, I had heat instead of Agua.

: I see.

LUKE: And then for drones or gnomes, trolls fit in there because I had the T and the R. And it turned out none of them work.


LUKE: I was making my own puzzle.

: Indeed. The Caruso show was not an opera that could have fit in there, but "NYPD Blue," David Caruso.

LUKE: Oh, right. And I had used my DirecTV thing. I put in actors Caruso and I saw there was a Caruso that starred in one called "Eagle Eye." And that fit in there. But it wasn't the one you needed.

: It wasn't the one you needed. And I guess, Mike Shenk, when you think of that answer, "NYPD Blue," there's a couple of things that go into that. For one thing, the NYPD part, when you're getting - it's a funny list of consonants - the Y sometimes a vowel; nevertheless, it's a little awkward-looking to a solver, you may say - may think twice that you may not have the right answer.

SHENK: Right. We - when we make puzzles, especially the playoff puzzle, we love to put in combinations of letters that look very questionable. That's why in the opposite corner you'll find K.T. Oslin(ph) because you're filling in those letters, you get a K and a T at the beginning of the word. That doesn't look right. So we love putting in unusual sets of letters.

LUKE: It was great.

: Thanks, Luke. I hope you enjoyed solving it.

LUKE: Oh, I did. Thank you. Bye-bye.

: Bye-bye. And it was fascinating to watch Dan Feyer, who was the winner of the championship this year. He finished in, what, about seven and a half minutes, eight minutes, something like that?

SHENK: Something very scary like that. Yeah.

: It's terrifying.

SHENK: Yeah.

: Because these are extremely difficult clues. And I must say - well, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Steve. Steve calling with us - calling us from Jacksonville in Florida.

STEVE: Hi. I have a general question. My wife and I do crosswords in the morning, generally. And we have not gotten to the C level.


STEVE: But my question is, has anyone done crosswords with a phrase, like a quote from Shakespeare, that runs the whole way around the outside edge of the puzzle?

: Gee, I've never seen one like that. There's lots that have quotes or continuing phrases in several acrosses. But...

STEVE: Yeah.

: Mike Shenk, I've never seen one like Steve's describing.

SHENK: I don't recall seeing a puzzle with a quote running around the outside of the puzzle. In fact, I don't remember too many puzzles where the border of the puzzle is the - is where you find the theme, even though, strangely, I just had one from one of my contributors to the Journal that the theme was round the edge of the puzzle. So...

STEVE: Oh, okay.

: So there's some...

STEVE: And one more final question. The rumor is that President Clinton does crossword puzzles in ink.

: If you've ever seen the movie "Wordplay," you'll find that to be true.

STEVE: Oh, my.

SHENK: Yes. I - actually, before he was president, when he was running for office, Will Shortz and I, who were then working at Games Magazine, met with him and timed him solving a puzzle, which he not only did in ink in very short time, but took a phone call in the middle of it and kept solving while he was on the phone.


SHENK: So he's a very good solver. He'd probably do fairly well in the tournament if he were willing to come.

STEVE: Thank you both very much.

: Thanks, Steve, for the phone call. Appreciate it. By the way, we mentioned that clue, 30 across, as it was in this puzzle, Caruso show. That was the C level clue, just to give you again an idea of the different levels of competition here. 30 across in the C or the easiest level was TV series set in the 15th Precinct. And in the B level clue, it was ABC debut of September 1993. So you would know that it was indeed a television program on ABC. And I wonder out there, are there people who cheated and used Google? Give us a call, 800- 989-8255; email us talk@npr.org. Glen is on the line from Toledo, Ohio.

GLEN: Yes, sir. I - you know, at the risk of sounding silly for this question, I have tried crossword puzzles in the past and I was wondering if your guest recommends things for learning puzzles, maybe, for beginners or resources, maybe try theme puzzles first, something like that. I would like to do crossword puzzles, but it just - I don't even get halfway through them usually because of the clues.

: Yeah. They do get easier as you do them for a longer period of time. But Mike Shenk, any observations?

SHENK: Yeah. Well, that's my advice too, is - I mean, the best way to get good at crosswords is lots and lots of practice. And you'll be frustrated at the beginning with all the little words that show up in crosswords more often than they do in real life until you learn those and get those under your belt.

: Until you learn the Swiss rivers and other things that populate crosswords. And hardly anywhere else, but Atlases. The New York Times crossword is always easiest on Monday. Is that true with the Journal as well?

SHENK: The Journal only has the crossword on Fridays. It's only one day a week crossword. And it's the same size as the Sunday puzzle in the Times. So the Journal and even New York Times Monday are probably not the best bet for a beginner.

: No, Monday for the Times is the best bet; that's the easiest puzzle. Sunday, you're saying is not the best.

SHENK: No. No, I'm saying even Monday in the Times is probably harder than, say, some of the puzzle magazines out there that are maybe a better place for beginners to start or some of the newspaper puzzles that aren't from the Times, the syndicated puzzles.

: All right. Glen?

GLEN: Repetition and don't get discouraged too easily then.

: Try, try again.

SHENK: Right.

GLEN: Okay.

: All right.

GLEN: Thank you.

: We're talking with Mike Shenk, puzzle editor of the Wall Street Journal and the constructor of the puzzle used for the finals at this year's American Crossword Puzzle championship presented by Will Shortz in Brooklyn last Sunday.

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

And Mike, it must be - is there competition to be the finals constructor?

SHENK: Not as far as I know. I think Will just decides on who he'd like to have do it. He asked me if I want to do it this year, and I was happy to do it. I think, you know, he tries to keep in mind who hasn't done it recently, and also he has a number of people who he knows can do a puzzle hard enough for the final people.

: Mm-hmm. Email from Devon(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Do any of these championship contenders play Scrabble professionally?

SHENK: I know there are some people who play Scrabble who also come to the tournament. I don't know if any of them are at a professional level. But...

: Scrabble and crosswords obviously very closely related. Is there a difference in mind between a constructor, somebody who writes a crossword puzzle, and a solver?

SHENK: There is. I'd be a reasonably good solver, but I'd certainly not be in the class with the people who can do it as fast I can. I could finish a puzzle, but probably not in the 15 minutes that you get at the tournament. There are some constructors who are - very good constructors who come to the tournament and don't do particularly well, and they're, you know, some who do very well. So...

: Trip Payne comes to mind.

SHENK: Yes. He's one of those who - actually, I guess he started as a constructor and then started competing. There's others like Stan Newman who hasn't competed for years but was a winner number of times, who was a solver first, a really good solver at the tournament, and then got into the business.

: We should point out that the most difficult part of the puzzle that was used in the championship final was 52-down and 51-across. The clue in the A level, the most difficult for 52-down, was difficulty in walking. The clue for 51-across was effusive, colloquially. And the problem was a lot of people went to 52-down and said difficulty in walking and had a limp, and ended up with 51- across being alush, which I'm not sure is a word, but if you think about effusive colloquially, might fit, and it turns out, of course, it was not limp, but gimp, going down, and agush.

SHENK: Yeah. That - agush is not a particularly good word to start with. So it's not surprising people didn't jump on that. So, yeah, I didn't plot - I didn't plan that as a trap to catch people, but it did.

: And several people did get that wrong. And it's interesting, at the championship level, it seems to me - I've been to a number of these tournaments in the past several years - one mistake, people finished in fast times. That's important. But if you make a mistake, you're going to lose.

SHENK: Right. And when you're racing those two other people up there, once you finish a corner, you don't tend to look back and reconsider any of the words. If every square is filled in, you're just going to assume it's all right. And so it's very hard to go back and catch a mistake like that.

: And one famous example where one dreadful square was left empty. Anyway, let's go back to Andrew. Andrew with us from Phoenix, Arizona.

ANDREW: Hi. I was just calling in response to the last person who asked about professional Scrabble players. I'm in Phoenix, Arizona and I've written some articles about Scrabble and I've actually interviewed Trip Payne when he came to a Phoenix Scrabble tournament a few years ago.

First off, there's really not so much something as a professional Scrabble player. There's maybe a handful of people who've made enough money that they could sort of live off it. But Trip Payne might come the closest. He's maybe in the top 50 to 100 Scrabble players in the world. And he also obviously is an excellent crossword puzzle player as well.

: Mm-hmm.

ANDREW: But not a lot of professional Scrabble players, really.

: Thank you very much for the clarification, Andrew.

ANDREW: You're welcome.

: Bye-bye. And indeed, I don't think there are any professional Scrabble - crossword puzzle solvers either. You do get some nice prizes for winning the championship of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, as Dan Feyer did again this year in Brooklyn, New York on Sunday afternoon. But mostly you get the adulation of the, well, I'm not sure throng is the right word, of the hundreds who are gathered there to watch.

SHENK: Right.

: And Mike Shenk, I think the real star of this year's crossword puzzle tournament was your puzzle. So thanks very much for being with us today.

SHENK: Well, thank you very much.

: Mike Shenk is the crossword puzzle editor of the Wall Street Journal. He constructed the championship puzzle. You can find that puzzle - and, yes, now we've posted the answers too - at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. Mike with us today from our bureau in New York.

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