The Westport Library was quieter than usual today — some of the time.
The 21st annual Crossword Puzzle Contest drew a record 130-plus cruciverbalists, from as far as Pittsburgh and Illinois.
A small portion of the 130-plus puzzlers.
Led by New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz — the host and grandmaster for all 21 years — the contestants tackled 3 crosswords.
That was the quiet part. During breaks, there were loud, animated conversations — about puzzles, the genius of Will Shortz, and life.
The judges at work.
After those preliminary rounds, the finalists took the stage. Glenn Ryan of Norwich dethroned defending champion Ken Stern, finishing a “Friday puzzle” without a mistake in a blazing 4 minutes, 50 seconds.
Finalists,just minutes after the championship round began.
He won a book about the origins of words — and an hour test drive in a Maserati, courtesy of the Westport dealer.
From left: finalists Ken Stern, Jesse Lansner and champion Glenn Ryan, with Westport Library executive director Bill Harmer and New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz.
That may the only thing faster than Glenn.
Not to brag, but — well, okay, a little. (Photos/Dan Woog)
Westporters have a special relationship with the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Every year, puzzle editor Will Shortz hosts a competition at the library. (The upcoming 19th annual event is February 3.)
When library director Maxine Bleiweis retired in 2015, Shortz showed up — and presented her with a specially created, “MB”-themed puzzle.
Two months ago, “Westport” was even the answer to a clue — “Affluent Connecticut town” — in a Times crossword puzzle.
But our special relationship goes only so far. To be published by the paper, a puzzle must be good. Very good.
Alan Southworth’s is. Which is why — ta-da! — the 2010 Staples High School graduate makes his debut today as a New York Times puzzle constructor.
Alan Southworth (left) and Will Shortz, at last year’s Westport Library crossword puzzle contest.
The best constructors know a lot, about a lot of things. They have varied interests. Southworth definitely does.
At Staples he sang with the Orphenians, joined the jazz band, competed on the math team, and played freshman basketball.
At Princeton he majored in geosciences (and was certified in sustainable energy and environmental studies). He works now as an energy market consultant, in a Manhattan firm run by 2001 Staples grads Gabe Phillips and Jonathan Spivak. In his spare time, he plays singer-songwriter gigs around the city.
Southworth always loved words. He grew up playing Scrabble and Boggle with his mom, and relaxed before bed with Sudoku and KenKen.
In college, he discovered crosswords. He and his friends challenged themselves with the Times puzzle in the dining hall.
After graduation, he commuted nearly 2 hours each way. Vowing to be as productive as possible, he spent his train rides writing song lyrics. That soon morphed into crossword theme ideas.
His college friend Ryan McCarty had a couple of puzzles accepted by the Times. He wanted to collaborate. So Southworth devised themes. McCarty did most of the grid construction. Together they wrote clues.
They’ve kept a Google Doc of puzzle ideas ever since.
Their first 2 puzzles were rejected. This one was accepted, Southworth thinks, because the theme answers were a bit “cleaner,” and the grid more open (fewer black squares in the middle).
Having a crossword accepted is quite an accomplishment. Having your first one run on a Thursday is remarkable. That’s the toughest day for a themed puzzle. (Monday is the easiest; Tuesday and Wednesday are a bit harder. Friday and Saturday are reserved for themeless — but more difficult — puzzles.)
Southworth has a digital subscription to the Times. But today he’ll buy a dead-tree copy of the paper — and make copies for his co-workers.
Here in Westport, his parents have promised to save their copy for him too.
The New York Times is the gold standard of crossword puzzles. If you can solve one, you feel pretty good.
If you can actually create and sell one to Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, you feel even better.
Ryan Milligan did just that. His crossword puzzle was published today. Not too shabby for a 25-year-old.
Then again, while at Staples High School he was already making crosswords. He got the bug helping his dad, Marty, solve the Times puzzle before school each morning (Ryan’s specialty was French clues). Soon, he was solving them on his own — on the bus, or during free periods.
Starting as a junior, the Class of 2008 member created one crossword a week. He’d print 150 copies, and leave them in the lobby. By lunchtime, they’d be gone.
His first puzzles, he admits, were “truly terrible.” Over the years, he honed his craft. He learned to fit the Times standard: 180-degree symmetry, fewer than 40 black squares, fewer than 78 words, no 2-letter entries, etc.
Ryan submitted his 1st puzzle to Shortz as a senior. It was rejected. So were the 10 or so that followed.
But the puzzle editor has been “an incredible mentor” over the past 8 years, Ryan says.
Shortz always gave full explanations for the rejection. Usually the theme was tired, or had been used before.
This time, Ryan hit paydirt. (Actually it was a year ago. Shortz has a long waiting list for publication.)
SPOILER ALERT: Today’s theme is “Hidden in plain sight.” The word “hidden” is hidden in the 1st long across row. The words “in plain” are hidden in the 2nd long row; the word “sight” is hidden in the 3rd one. The 4th long across row reveals the overall theme.
Ryan thinks Shortz liked it because it was “really different. Constructors often take standard phrases and change a letter or 2 around to make them wacky. But this is something that has really not been tried before.”
Shortz is a hands-on editor. He changed some of the long across answers, then pulled in Frank Longo to rework the puzzle a bit more.
Ryan is not resting on his laurels. He creates a crossword every couple of weeks, submitting those he feels are print-worthy.
The Dartmouth graduate works in marketing for Wayfair.com, an online furniture retailer. He lives in Boston.
Today he’ll walk around the city. Perhaps he’ll see someone trying to solve the puzzle he made. Few people read the constructors’ names; even those who do won’t know they’re working on “his” puzzle.
Ryan Milligan will be hidden in plain sight.
(To read what the New York Times crossword community is saying about Ryan Milligan’s puzzle, click here.)
Today’s puzzle, by Ryan Milligan. (Copyright/New York Times)
When asked what the title of his autobiography might be, he replied: Times Square.
If that pun falls a bit flat, you’re 1 of the 3 Westporters who haven’t at least tried the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Will Shortz at the Westport Public Library tonight.
The rest of the town flocked to the Westport Public Library last night to honor Will Shortz at the 12th annual Booked for the Evening celebration.
They were not disappointed.
After music by the Doughboys; a Shortz-themed crossword puzzle by Times constructor Patrick Merrell; introductions by Phil Donohue and library director Maxine Bleiweis (battling pneumonia), and praise from Bill Clinton (via letter), the Times crossword editor/NPR puzzlemeister/Indiana University enigmatology major took the stage.
He led an audience participation word game whose rules are too complex to repeat here. The key point is that — after some solid brain-twisting — the answer emerged: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
If I was half as clever as Will Shortz, I’d be a very happy man.
Tom Brokaw, E.L. Doctorow, Calvin Trillin, Wendy Wasserstein, Pete Hamill, Martin Scorsese, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Halberstam and Will Shortz.
If that was a clue — a long one — in a New York Times crossword puzzle, the answer would be:
Westport Library honorees.
The list is broad and diverse: authors, historians, a TV newsman, a playwright, a film director.
On Thursday, May 27, the Library adds “crossword puzzle editor” to the list.
Like previous “Booked for the Evening” honorees, Shortz loves words and language. His forte is unique — games — but he is adored by millions of Americans for the joy he takes in puns, puzzles and wordplay.
He is sui generis — the only person in the world with a degree in enigmatology (“the study of puzzles”). He also earned a law degree from the University of Virginia, a factoid that must delight hard-core fans (and puzzle his parents).
Shortz — who in his spare time is puzzlemaster for NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” — has a long relationship with libraries in general, and Westport’s in particular.
Though he amassed many reference works in his Pleasantville, NY home — from the OED to specialized works covering opera, poetry, art, baseball, whatever — and he now uses the internet for most research, Shortz still frequents his local library. He considers it “a friend, a place I can use whenever I want.”
In 2001 he agreed to provide puzzles for the Westport Library’s 1st crossword championship. Ten years later, he’s still at it. The “great time and great people” keep drawing him back.
On May 27, Shortz will talk a bit, then play interactive word games with the Westporters honoring him. “We’ll test people,” he says. “We’ll have fun.”
And if he were to clue “Westport” into a puzzle?
On a Monday, he says, it might be basic: “Connecticut town on Long Island Sound.”
For a Saturday, though, he’d “find a fact that would be interesting to many people, but not well known. You’d need a lot of crossing letters to solve it.”
Sort of like: Town whose library honored a puzzlemaster in 2010.
(Click here for tickets to the Westport Public Library’s “Booked for the Evening” benefit event.)
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Thanks!)