Tuesday, June 1, 1999 | 9:44 a.m.
What's an 18-letter phrase for puzzle habit?
The Sun receives a lot of calls about its daily crossword puzzles, and not everyone has kind words to offer -- complaints have ranged from the layout of the page (we have since moved the New York Times and Los Angeles Times crosswords off the fold of the page to make it easier to complete uncreased puzzles) to the occasional printing of the wrong puzzle and answers (guilty as charged, but we're ever-vigilant).
We thought we'd ask a few local crossword enthusiasts what it is about the 86-year-old puzzle pastime that keeps them so enthralled and, as long as we're at it, investigate how a crossword is composed -- as well as ask the New York Times to share a few stories from its legendary 55-year-old crossword.
The first crossword was created by a journalist, Arthur Wynne, for the New York World, Sunday edition, December 21, 1913. By 1924 crosswords had become a fad and Simon & Schuster jumped on the bandwagon, publishing the world's first crossword puzzle book. Unlike most fads, crosswords remain a mainstay in today's newspapers.
Delivered to most homes via the daily newspaper, a crossword puzzle may seem innocent, but it consumes devotees with its elusive clues and perfectly-fitted verbiage.
"I like to challenge my own mind, and at this age, you forget a lot of things," says Rose Beckerman, a 74-year-old "cruciverbalist" (it's not in the dictionary but most crossword fans can use it in a sentence -- it means a lover of language) at the Sunlake Terrace retirement community on South Fort Apache Road.
Beckerman's crossword partner, Seymour Ginsberg, also lives at Sunlake. He sits quietly across from her, a box of crossword magazines and razor-sharp No. 2 pencils sitting beside his sweater-vested frame.
Together they happily scratch away at the daily local newspapers' crosswords. Ginsberg works the pencil for Beckerman, whose hands are crippled by age.
"It's me and Seymour against the world," Beckerman says. The two are irked by easy clues, sloppy page layout and, at the other end of the specturm, ridiculous clues they have come across in the distant past.
"Sometimes it's a common word, but the definitions are so stupid," Beckerman says. She remembers a puzzle three decades ago that she nearly completed, except for one -- just one -- difficult clue.
"Jewish cream cheese," she says, repeating the clue to let the absurdity sink in. "Do you know what the answer turned out to be, after struggling for 16 hours? Lox!"
She slams her fist on a square wooden table in a 30-year fit of frustration.
"Some idiot thought that was a great 'stuffer,' " she says, describing a word placed in a puzzle because it fits well between two larger words. "I never felt like killing anybody! I wanted to take a knife and go down (to the newspaper) and cut the lox out of him!"
"The struggle is great," Ginsberg, a retired University of Southern California computer science professor, says.
Lately, Ginsberg has reverted to working crossword magazines, although "they're too easy," he says. He saves each day's newsapaper puzzle page for the two of them to tackle together later.
The two aren't very picky about which crossword puzzle they attempt to solve, as long as they aren't too easy, all of the clues are correct ("sometimes they're not!" Beckerman huffs) and placed in such a way that it's not too bulky when they fold the newspaper.
Beckerman likes to work across the page in numerical order, whereas Ginsberg prefers filling in the clues he knows and returning to the grid to finish it by the numbers.
Ginsberg says with a shrug: "You try this, you try that, and if it doesn't work ..."
"You throw it away and get another one," Beckerman finishes.
Jim Sundstrom, a crossword connoisseur and co-owner of JJ's World Famous Italian Ice in Las Vegas, completes six puzzles a week while driving around town in his big yellow truck filled with kid-pleasing confections.
"There's half-finished crosswords in my truck all the time," Sundstrom explains while mixing a batch of cherry ice for the day's ride. "Well, hopefully more than half-finished."
He has been puzzling for more than half of his 30 years.
"One of my fondest memories is doing the Sunday crossword puzzle with my dad," he recalls. "He knew all the old stuff, old movie stars and politicians, and I knew all the new stuff, so between the two of us we could usually finish one."
Nowadays if a clue stumps him, Sundstrom keeps his cool, including his customers in his enigmatic efforts.
"There is always someone around to ask and the next thing you know, there's a whole bunch of people around trying to answer (the clues), and that's always fun," he says.
A car dealership became the ultimate source for an Elvis Presley-themed crossword that Sundstrom couldn't break.
"I pulled into this car dealership and asked the salesman if he knew any Elvis songs for this puzzle I was working on," Sundstrom says Although the salesman didn't, he knew someone who was able to help. "This Elvis impersonator (also a salesman) comes walking up to the truck -- an Elvis impersonator! And he helped me finish the puzzle."
Sundstrom thanked him, thanked him very much.
Mark Dickel, a guard on UNLV's Runnin' Rebels basketball team, sharpens his mind off the court with crossword puzzles. He even lists them as a hobby above his playing stats in the team's game program.
Dickel can usually be found with his nose in a crossword book while traveling with the team on airplanes and buses. The Dunedin, New Zealand native says his "mum" started him on the puzzles when he was a wee 11-year-old.
"It's something to think about, it keeps your mind busy," he says.
The college senior tackles the clues one by one to see how much he knows before finally going back to fill in the rest of the grid -- and doesn't like to finish before the last square is filled.
"I like to see how much I can get done off the top of my head, test myself," Dickel says. "It's an achievement."
Build it and they will fill it
"Once you do one crossword, you never quit," Francis Heaney, editor-at-large for Games magazine, says.
Heaney's grandmother introduced him to the traditional pen and paper game when he was 10 and, six years ago, his obsession was solidified when he constructed his first crossword.
"It's a skill in general, but each puzzle holds its challenges," Heaney says.
As a crossword constructor, he presents the challenge to the minions waiting for the next day's paper to deliver their habit. It's a habit that pays very little for the amount of time and love (of words) that goes into it, Heaney says. Top dollar paid for a 15-square-by-15 square puzzle is about $80 for an average of eight hours of work.
Constructing a puzzle involves hours of tedious work and a wealth of useless knowledge. "I like learning to do things that are useless," he says. "It's pleasantly perverse."
First he chooses three or four words, 12 letters in length maximum, and places them in a grid. (A 15-by-15 puzzle holds 78 words, maximum.) Next he places the black squares around the chosen theme words to make a symmetrical design. Here's a tidbit: A crossword puzzle has the same design upside-down as it does right side-up. The rest of the grid is then filled in with words that conjoin with the larger words, or what Beckerman calls "stuffers."
"The (words) that cross two words have more constraints," Heaney says. "The four-letter words are pretty simple."
Sometimes -- but not all the time, Heaney stresses -- a constructor has to replace a chosen word that doesn't fit in the completed puzzle for one whose letters all conform.
"Psychologically it is difficult, but sometimes you have to let go," he says. Then, he writes the clues, preferably with wit and imagination.
"Something interesting, amusing," Heaney says, admitting that he likes to trick people with his definitions. "I like it when I get fooled" while attempting to solve another constructors puzzle.
But it's hard to come up with a different word every time, he says. For instance, there are only so many words that begin and end with E, but he tries to take the road less traveled when he runs into that quagmire.
"I don't like it if (constructors) use a crossword word and take the easy way out," Heaney says. For instance, the word 'E-S-N-E,' a medieval slave, is soooo obvious to most puzzlers, because it's used frequently.
Sundstrom agrees, saying that is one of his personal pet peeves.
"If the clue is 'movie dog' and it's four letters, it's always 'Asta,' " from the "Thin Man" movies of the 1930s and '40s, starring Myrna Loy and William Powell. They're used a lot in crosswords."
The New York Times crossword is the final word in what crossword editor Will Shortz calls "enigmatology" and Shortz (who has a degree in the subject) is at the helm, guaranteeing smooth sailing for puzzlers.
"Crosswords are a test for everything significant in the world," Shortz says, adding that they are a refresher course in all the things learned over the years. "In school we are tested -- out of school, how do we test our knowledge?"
The Times was one of the last general interest newspapers in the country to catch the crossword trend in 1942, when it published its first crossword puzzle.
Shortz says he receives 60 to 75 crosswords a week from puzzle constructors all over the country. He chooses his favorites, sends them to the puzzle makers who check the clues for accuracy and constructs the puzzle for publication -- all of which takes four to 10 hours per puzzle.
Since Shortz took over in 1993, he has included more popular culture references about movie stars, rock bands and television -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- but he receives complaints from traditionalists.
"Older crosswords were stiff and didn't reflect the vocabulary and culture of modern life," he says. "Any reference more recent than the last 30 years was a shock. Nowadays, crosswords (reference) all of our culture."
This could be why the age range of crossword fans has become younger in recent years, he says.
As the week winds down, the puzzles grow in difficulty, with the hardest crossword appearing on Sunday. "People, all the time, think they find errors in the puzzles," he says. "Or the puzzles are too hard or too easy. Some people write that they don't even waste their time (working the puzzles) until Friday."
Then there are those who hold the puzzle in great esteem.
Shortz has collected many letters from celebrities delighted to find that their name had been used in a puzzle: Comedians Lily Tomlin, Jerry Stiller and his son, actor/director Ben Stiller among them.
Actress Neve Campbell was qouted in a recent edition of Jane magazine. "She said she got a big kick discovering her name in the New York Times crossword puzzle," Shortz says.
But Shortz has also been shocked by the enduring popularity of the Times crossword.
"A lady called me on a Wednesday and told me her mother had just died," Shortz explains. "Her mother was crazy about the Times crossword and they were burying her on Saturday. She wondered if she could get an advance copy of Sunday's (crossword) to inter with her to have the Times' crossword with her for eternity."
It seems that the old-fashioned puzzle will stick around, beyond electronic hand-held games, television and computer games for, well, what's a seven- letter word for "a long time"?