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Wordplay Review

By Shawn McKenzie 06/25/2006

Now that documentaries are becoming almost as popular as their fictional counterparts are…did you ever think that a documentary about geeks obsessing over crossword puzzles wound be entertaining?  There are no cute penguins, weirdoes being mauled by bears, or Michael Moore in it…so how could you possibly want to go to the theater to watch it?  For a person who hasn’t played a crossword puzzle in I don’t know how long, I found Wordplay utterly fascinating.

The movie starts out as an examination of the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times and the puzzle master on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” Will Shortz.  While the man himself is interesting, documentary filmmaker Patrick Creadon focuses on other people who are equally interesting…but we’ll get to them in a second.  Shortz has been the puzzle editor for The Times since 1993 (the fourth in the paper’s history), and he is the only person in the world to hold a college degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles, which he earned from Indiana University, Bloomington in 1974 after designing his own major program.  He is also the founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) since 1978.  The last third of the movie revolves around the 2005 tournament, but we will get to that later as well.

Shortz has many fans of the puzzle, including several celebrities.  Fellow documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, former President Bill Clinton, Clinton’s 1996 election rival Bob Dole, Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, The Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, who were surprised to see their band as a puzzle answer once), and “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart express their love for the puzzles.  Stewart himself, not surprisingly, is the most amusing in his enthusiasm for the puzzle (“I am a Times puzzle fan.  I will solve the USA Today, but I don’t feel good about myself,” he says early in the movie.)  Even Daniel Okrent, the former Public Editor for The Times, admits, “The puzzle fits into the paper because there’s no other puzzle like it.”

Shortz may be the editor, but he leaves the day-to-day work to a series of “puzzle constructors.”  Merl Reagle is one such puzzle constructor, and he is a genius at making a puzzle fit.  He explains that the Monday puzzle is the easiest one, and the Sunday puzzle is the hardest.  He also talks about “Sunday Morning Breakfast Table Test”…words that won’t make you sick to your stomach over Sunday breakfast.

The second third of the movie is devoted to introducing us to the most popular entrants of the ACPT.  Norman “Trip” Payne is also a professional crossword constructor and a three-time winner of the tournament.  In 1993, at age 24, he became the youngest person ever to win the ACPT. He is in a relationship with his boyfriend, Brian Dominy, and he is fascinated with the letter “Q.”  Tyler Hinman is a 20-year-old Information Technology major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York.  Being such a young prodigy, he threatens to take Trip’s title as the youngest ACPT champion ever.  Ellen Ripstein is an editor and a self-professed puzzle nerd.  She has participated in the competition almost every year since the first one in 1978 and finally won in 2001 (she became the second female ever to win; Nancy Schuster, the tournament’s first winner back in ’78, was the first female.)  Al Sanders, a Fort Collins, CO project manager at Hewlett-Packard, who lives with his wife Eileen and their three children, has taken third place every year for five of the previous six years.  He hopes to change that in the 2005 ACPT.  One person who isn’t competing in the 2005 tournament (at least I didn’t see him there), but is profiled anyway, is Jon Delfin…a Broadway piano player who has won the tournament a record seven times.  He talks about how it’s not English teachers who master the puzzle…it’s mathematicians, computer programmers, and musicians who are the best at it, because they can figure out the patterns.

The last third of the movie covers the 28th Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament held in a Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut on March 11-13, 2005.  It starts out in seven rounds, and the top three contenders play against one another on a giant oversized puzzle while wearing headphones (to block out the noises around them, and so the commentators can observe the action for the audience.)  Trip, Tyler, Ellen, and Al are all there, and it becomes a tense competition between these expert wordsmiths.  I won’t reveal who wins (since you can almost see it coming), but it is dramatic in a geeky sort of way.

I have to say that my favorite part is in the middle of the movie.  Clinton and Dole talk about one of the words on the puzzle that appeared in The Times the day after the 1996 Presidential election.  The clue was, “The winner of last night’s Presidential election,” and the answer was either one of two seven-letter words…”Clinton” or “Bob Dole.”  The way they set the puzzle up made either answer fit correctly, and only history determined the ultimate answer (which would be, of course, “Clinton.”)  You will have to see the movie to really understand what I’m talking about, but trust me…it’s cool.

While Wordplay is not as good as 2002’s Spellbound, it is more adult than that Oscar-nominated doc was.  Creadon, along with his producer wife Christine O’Malley, has made an impressive debut with this film, and it takes a great talent to make a subject as mundane as a crossword puzzle mesmerizing to anyone other than hardcore fans.

Get Will Shortz's Wordplay: The Official Companion Book:

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