The New York Times Sunday crossword is something of a white whale for puzzlers: sixteen square inches of obscure cultural and historical references, impenetrable patterns, and clever-bordering-on-cruel wordplay. People spend years working up to it, and even the best amateur crossworders have been known to take hours to finish it.
Will Shortz can do it in about 25 minutes. He’s also the world’s only academically accredited enigmatologist, thanks to a self-designed major in college, and as the longtime editor of the Times puzzle, he’s the undisputed high priest of a movement that rivals some religions when it comes to both number of adherents and degree of devotion. Of the Times Magazine‘s 1.6 million-plus readers, some 25 percent turn to the crossword puzzle first, according to industry estimates, and Shortz’s hundred-plus puzzle books have made him a perennial fixture on the paper’s own bestseller list. As the popularity of puzzling continues to grow, Shortz has become something of a folk hero, not to mention a minor celebrity: He has guest-starred on The Simpsons and How I Met Your Mother, gets recognized on the street, and has a regular gig as puzzlemaster on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, and Ken Burns have publicly professed their love for the puzzles Shortz edits, and, more recently, Brian Wilson of the San Francisco Giants told the Times that his next career aspiration is to appear as a clue in one of their puzzles. The 2006 film Wordplay, a feature-length documentary about Shortz and the one-man puzzling empire he’s created, only cemented his status as a household name — albeit perhaps only in those households populated by NPR-listening, Times-subscribing word nerds whose minds are filled to the brim with inane trivia such as a three-letter word for a Tolkien creation (either Ent or Orc works).
Indeed, crosswording is, at its core, an unabashedly eggheady pursuit, one that prizes arcane intelligence and punny cleverness above all else. So it should come as no surprise that Shortz is a big hit in Berkeley: He spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at Zellerbach Hall in 2007, and Joe Yang of Cal Performances said Shortz has a lot of fans in the community. It was only natural, he said, that Shortz return for a speaking engagement this Sunday, November 21, at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.
The appreciation appears to be mutual: “I had a great time in Berkeley,” he said in a recent interview. “Very smart, engaged crowd.” That visit actually yielded a story he said he tells regularly: As he was splitting the audience into two groups for a round of word games, he asked them to come up with team names — something related in some way to the event’s location. The audience quickly came up with “left and far left.” Shortz still chuckles when he tells the story.
This time around, Shortz said, he plans to spend about half his presentation discussing his favorite puzzles of the year, explaining what he believes makes a good crossword, and conducting a question-and-answer session. After that, he’ll lead the audience in a round of interactive word games. He said he expects a mix of casual crossworders, professional and amateur puzzle constructors, and members of official organizations like the National Puzzlers League. 7 p.m., $20-$36. 510-642-9988 or CalPerfs.Berkeley.edu