I recently caught an episode of To Tell the Truth, the old game show jazzed up for 21st century audiences. Anthony Anderson has replaced Bud Collyer as host, and the sophisticated panelists of yesterday are nowadays mostly B-list celebrities substituting one-liners for more legitimate questions.
The most intriguing contestant that evening was not the young woman who fulfilled her maid-of-honor duties dressed as a dinosaur, not even Oprah’s pedicurist. As a longtime puzzle solver, I wanted to know more about another contestant, the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times.
That editor, Will Shortz, is an enigmatologist, the only person with a college degree in the study of puzzles. Indeed, he designed his own curriculum for the bachelor’s he earned at Indiana University.
Crossword puzzles first appeared in the mid-1800’s but did not attain real popularity until the 1920’s; in the 1940’s they served as a distraction from war news. As much as the public enjoyed these potentially-challenging puzzles is how much editors disliked them, being difficult to set and prone to typographical errors. The New York Times opinion early on: sinful waste… not a game, hardly a sport…primitive form of mental exercise.”
These days, of course, New York Times crosswords are among the best-known puzzles in the nation. I might have once or twice attempted to solve one of its weekend puzzles, but I am certain I filled very few boxes with letters: those puzzles are well above my pay grade. The NYT crosswords increase in difficulty each day – the Tuesday puzzle is harder to solve than Monday’s puzzle, for example. Interestingly enough, the Saturday puzzle is the most challenging of the entire week. Hmm…maybe I should start practicing on Monday puzzles!
My father was our family’s most faithful crossword fan, with part of his daily ritual the completion of the puzzle in the UDC. His morning coffee beside him, before heading to the barn or driving to the paper mill in Urbana, he pulled out one of his stubby pencils whittled by pocket knife to a point and commenced solving. It was acceptable for someone else to fill in the few blanks he occasionally left, but it was understood – he had first crack at solving those clues each day.
My father was also the family master of the jigsaw puzzle. Often the brown card table sat all weekend in the living room, holding the latest scene of 500 pieces he worked to recreate, as he referred to the landscape or rustic barn pictured on the box lid. Mother would stop by to interlock a few pieces, and various ones of my siblings did their share, commensurate with age and ability. But my dad was in it for the long haul, calmly and steadily separating pieces, connecting the border, forming picture sections until scene completion. In retirement, most days he continued to piece together pictures. Alas, not one speck of jigsaw DNA resides anywhere in my body. Oh, I can hold my own with most toddler puzzles, but jigsaw puzzling is not for me!
I might have had a better chance in 1767 when a British cartographer created the first jigsaw puzzle by attaching one of his maps to a sheet of wood and cutting the whole thing into pieces. Dissected puzzles, as they were first known, were considered educational games but did not really catch on as a hobby, what with their lack of pictures to guide puzzlers.
Changes in materials and manufacturing have boosted the popularity of jigsaw puzzling in all its modern forms. These days we can even connect pieces online to form scenes and designs; the county library features jigsaw puzzles on its Facebook page three times a week. My favorite fun fact about jigsaw puzzles: regardless of the number of pieces listed, there is a good chance the box contains 513 or 1026 of them!
Jigsaw puzzling notwithstanding, I am not overly fond of crossword puzzles either. I may as well also add sudoku and word searches to my list of least favorites. I have never been a numbers gal, and circling words does not do much for me.
In variety puzzle books from the grocery store, I eventually discovered a plethora of other puzzle forms and word games. More than half the puzzles went to waste, though, because I was pretty darn choosy about what I wanted to solve.
Fortunately, I finally happened upon collections of single formats – 55 puzzles of just one style per book. My favorite dozen or so puzzles share a common characteristic: the letters of solved clues complete a second puzzle – a quotation, words of wisdom, even a punny sentence. My sister’s eyes glaze over whenever I enthusiastically describe my latest puzzle conquest, but I find the neurological gymnastics involved curiously addictive.
I appreciate the benefits of keeping my mind agile and alert through puzzles. I may even be adding years to my life and staving off mental confusion by simply working a couple of puzzles every day – instead of doing laundry or cleaning out closets.
What makes my hobby even sweeter is the inspirational payoff with sentences such as these the ultimate solution:
– The unity of freedom has never relied on uniformity of opinion. (JFK)
– Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest. (Twain)
– History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time. (Anonymous)
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976 to 2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.