Wordplay

Wordplay

Wordplay is a documentary about crossword puzzles, featuring the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, some of the people who have their submitted puzzles published in the Times, famous people who do the Times crossword puzzle regularly, and contestants at the biggest annual crossword puzzle tournament.

This is a fun, very light movie. The people are colorful enough to be interesting, and the climax of the movie—the tournament—has a little suspense to it, so it’s a watchable movie. It was easier to stay interested in than, say, Summercamp!, the documentary I watched before this one.

But on the other hand, no moment in this movie came close to the scene in Summercamp! where the little girl speaks of her father dying of cancer. So overall I probably liked Wordplay a little more, but my enjoyment of it was of a more superficial sort, just kind of a fun way to kill an hour and a half.

Just to mention a few of the things I liked about this movie, the one time I laughed out loud was when the crossword puzzle editor was reading his hate mail. He was tickled by it himself, and probably a lot of it (one hopes) is tongue-in-cheek, but then again I’m sure there are sad folks who really do feel some imagined crossword puzzle indignity warrants their anger.

(Also, bonus points for the fact that no one in the movie says these angry letter writers had “cross words” for the editor.)

I found it entertaining for some reason to hear from the famous people who do the puzzles, Bill Clinton especially. (Other celebs include Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, and Mike Mussina.)

I also thought it was kind of cool hearing the one female tournament winner from a previous year (middle-aged woman, kind of nerdy but not really unattractively mousy or anything, seems like a pretty nice person) describe what it was like to be up on stage in the final, with people chanting her name and such. She had this great appreciation for the experience, a sort of “this kind of thing doesn’t happen to me” wonder about it all. After all, pro athletes who get treated as big shots have generally experienced lesser versions of that in college and high school and maybe even earlier, so it’s not going to hit them the same way. Or someone who, say, wins the lottery or something that’s a matter of luck and gets attention for it isn’t really being recognized for an achievement. Whereas she’s suddenly somebody special for something she’s done.

I love when she says she had a boyfriend who had the habit of putting her down, and she finally told him, “And you’re the best person in the country at what exactly?” What’s cool is she doesn’t recount the incident in a mean-spirited, bitchy way, but just in a way that indicates she’s learning to take pride in herself. It wasn’t an anti-him thing, but a pro-her thing.

I’ve never gotten into the habit of doing such puzzles myself. It’s the kind of thing that here and there, when I was with someone who liked doing them, say, I’ve done a few, and I guess it’s enjoyable to some extent. But it’s never been a big deal to me, and never been something I’m unusually good at.

I probably like a little better the knowledge element, though frankly I’m nothing special at trivia. But at least I feel like there’s something legitimate about being tested on factual knowledge.

But there’s an equal or greater “riddle” component to these things. So it’s not “Who was the first Socialist prime minister of Greece?” or straightforward stuff like that. It’s plays on words and puns and weird little twists that aren’t about what you know, but about how familiar you are with the typical little games used in these puzzles. I don’t like that part as much.

I wonder why it doesn’t get boring for these folks. Supposedly the Times puzzle is the most challenging of all, but these people are at a level that they fill in all the blanks almost as fast as one could write down the letters. It’s like they’ve seen so many clues that they recognize immediately what the answer is as soon as they even glance at the clue.

Really all they’re working on now is time, trying to shave a couple seconds off their best time. Because it’s a foregone conclusion they’ll complete every puzzle, and very quickly.

It’s like those people who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in nine seconds or whatever. They have everything memorized and it just comes down to how fast they can move their hands. There’s really no challenge any more.

It just seems like that wouldn’t be very interesting.

Watching this movie reminded me that a long time ago I ordered a book about making crossword puzzles from some company, and I created a puzzle. It took me forever. I knew it made no sense financially; they paid $3 or $12 or whatever for any they accepted, and it took me a couple weeks or something ridiculous to finish this big thing. But once I got into it, I was just doing it for the sense of accomplishment. I wanted to see if I could actually finish it.

So I submitted it, and I didn’t hear anything for a long time, I think months. Finally someone from the company wrote me kind of apologetically, like “Oh yeah, I guess we do still sell that old book. Didn’t realize anyone still sent in puzzles based on the method in there.”

He praised my effort—really good for a first timer, etc., etc.—and said it didn’t quite reach the level they could use. But the main thing, he noted, is that now computers write all the puzzles. No one does what I did and comes up with the whole thing in his head. He said with minimal human input, computers churn out several a day, and they get all theirs from people using these programs.

That was over twenty years ago, so I thought it was interesting that in the movie, the people designing puzzles were all creating them “old school” by hand like I did. I’m not sure why. Maybe the playful little riddle type elements can only be done by a person, so for puzzles of that style like the Times uses, it’s just not an option to have a computer do them.

Anyway, like I say, Wordplay is a very light, somewhat entertaining film. I enjoyed the approach that was chosen for this material. But it’s certainly nothing to write home about.

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