Thursday 3 February 2011

Who says documentaries are boring? Watch Wordplay

Wordplay (Movie) NYT Crossword "Well, it's not like insulin. I mean, I can live without it for a day." says Jon Stewart, American standup comedian and crossword fan, when asked if he can do without the daily crossword puzzle. [Wordplay, 2006]

Whoever can identify with that sentiment – and I bet that's most of you reading the blog – is going to love this smart film on the world of crosswords. Wordplay is full of nuggets about grid-smitten folk – one champion solver cannot understand why people spend hours on a puzzle that takes her ten minutes ["I guess I've just accumulated a lot of useless knowledge that often is in the puzzles", she adds bemusedly], another when passing by a place with the word "Intercoastal" in it, remarks that the word is an anagram of ALTERCATIONS.

The pivotal figure in Wordplay is Will Shortz, New York Times (NYT) crossword editor, possibly the most powerful figure in the American puzzle world. He talks of the changes he has brought about in the NYT crossword since he took on the role of editor in 1993, and good-humouredly reads out some sharp letters written to him. "Dear Sir or Madam…you have taken all the fun out of crosswords." complains one writer. "You are sick, sick, sick." declares another. It comes with the territory, doesn't it, puzzle makers?

The film also visits celebrity solvers like Bill Clinton and Bob Dole who share their reactions to the diabolical New York Times Election Day Puzzle of 1996. The puzzle is displayed ingeniously in the film with the lights fading in and out of the grid cells and the clues inset.

Wordplay is about a non-cryptic crossword yet the film is no less interesting for solvers of cryptics. In a broad sense there is a lot in common between the two styles of puzzles: the same consideration for difficulty and symmetry, the approach to adding words to the grid – crossword setter Merl Reagle takes us through the process starting with the long entries, paying attention to crossing words till he reaches a stage where he needs to check the dictionary for a grid fill. As a musician in the film puts it, comparing crossword construction to writing a song - "all those things you play with - obscurity, clarity, generalization, specificity". You could say the same for cryptic crosswords.

Both styles of puzzles inspire a common drive in their fans to find answers, and a lot of Wordplay is about such devoted solvers. The film is built around the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament where crossword titans battle it out for the top spot. The film is visually excellent: it lets us watch the clues – and play along at places - as the competitors fill the grid on huge whiteboards. The final has all the thrill and suspense of a high-energy sport. A race against time by the three finalists, a heartbreaking faux pas, a close fight to the finish and ultimately the winner's classic victory statement: "Words are failing me. I am just glad they waited until now to do so."

PS: I think America is such a great place for encouraging enterprise. Through Indiana University's Individualized Major Program, Will Shortz studied Enigmatology in college, a course he designed himself – apparently Indiana University has an Individualized Major Program that lets you create your own personalized course of study. Will Shortz is the only person known to hold a college degree in the subject. Can we imagine doing something like that in India? For that matter, can we imagine a special grid of The Hindu Crossword being a topic of TV news, being commented on by the PM and leader of Opposition? OK, it might happen if The Hindu Crossword publishes a grid as sensational as the NYT Election Day Puzzle, but I doubt it :)

PPS: Straight crossword clues with difficult vocabulary are harder than cryptics for sure. I wouldn't get 1 Across of the championship final - "Stark and richly detailed, as writing (9)" without subsidiary indication. Can you? Hint: The answer has a Z and a Q in it.

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Anonymous said...

Well, believe it or not, there is a word intercostal (my spell check is giving me dirty looks here !)and I came to know of it only when I had a problem with it.:-)

Adam said...

An excellent write-up about one of my favorite films. Thank you.

- An NYT crossword fan

Balaji said...

I watched this film on your recommendation and it was indeed an enjoyable one. Thanks Shuchi.

The tournament organizers do add a lot of drama to the event by making the solvers solve the final puzzle on huge boards while the crowd watches them put in the answers. It must be quite unnerving for the solvers.

Shuchi said...

Thanks for your comment Balaji. Earmuffs for the finalists was a nice touch, too.

Raghuveer said...

In this age of specialization where the doctor checking your throat has probably forgotten the shape of the human brain, there are very few cerebral pursuits that can claim to hold the 'anyone can do this' status. Even quizzing has become esoteric these days.

As you watch this documentary, it is really striking to notice a US President, a music band, a suburban family man, a comedy show host and a documentary maker being engaged in the same activity.

This is a must watch for crossword fans. How good is it really?

Wordplay was made primarily for American audiences and does not dwell on the crossword of the cryptic variety. You feel they could have traveled across the pond to the UK and explored what the The Guardian and The Times offer. At times, they could have dropped focus on the personalities and could have provided some insight on how a few tricky clues are solved. The second half of the film which depicts an intense competition leaves you asking for more. Not always a bad thing!

A solid 4/5.

Vasant said...

Somehow or the other I seem to have missed reading this post. Just read it and straightway rushed to google to watch it. Obviously it is not free and has to be bought.
The clue:Stark and richly detailed as in writing(9) seems to be unanswered and made me scurry for my thesaurus but to no avail..but with an Q & a Z made me really think and after a bit of googling got ZOLAESQUE?

Shuchi said...


The word seems to have earned something like legendary status in American crossword circles. In its 2005 appearance, ZOLAESQUE cost top solver Al Sanders the first position - he had missed writing its Z. In 2015 - so NYT Crossword Blog reports - the final ACPT puzzle by Byron Walden carried this cheeky subtitle: "A final test of your cruciverbal skills from the guy who brought the puzzle world ZOLAESQUE."

On a related note: got to know [H/T @vip_nair] that one of Brooklyn 99's new episodes has a cameo by Will Shortz.