Andrew Hetherington
Andrew Hetherington

17 Clues About Puzzlemaster Will Shortz

Andrew Hetherington
Andrew Hetherington

As told to Jen Doll.

America's foremost crossword guru on how to get a clue.

1. When I was growing up, every once in a while, our family would start a jigsaw puzzle in the evening.
Everyone would drift off to bed, but I was a night owl. I stayed up. I cannot leave a puzzle unfinished. I would just keep going, and finish it at five in the morning. When everyone got up in the morning, too bad—the puzzle was done.

2. In eighth grade, I wrote a paper on what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to be a professional puzzle maker.
I imagined I would live in a garret somewhere cranking out my little puzzles for $10 apiece, and I imagined a life of poverty, and that was OK, because that was what I really wanted to do.

3. There’s a book called Language on Vacation, which came out in 1965. I wrote [the author] for advice.
He wrote back a very thoughtful three-page, single-spaced letter explaining all the reasons why I should not have a career in puzzles and why it was basically impossible.

4. I’m the only person in the world who’s ever majored in puzzles. (Shortz majored in enigmatology at Indiana University.)
Two years ago a guy majored in magic, and he looked upon me sort of as a mentor.

5. The summer before I started law school, I interned for PennyPress puzzle magazines.
The spring of my first year in law school, I wrote my parents that I’d be dropping out at the end of the year to work in puzzles. You can imagine how well that went over. My mom wrote back a very thoughtful letter saying, “This is a terrible idea,” and listing all the reasons why. At the end she said, “We love you no matter what you decide.” I thought her reasoning was good, so I did get my law degree. Then I went into puzzles.

6. When I first started at The New York Times in 1993, I took over for Eugene Maleska, who was 36 years older than me.
Shortly after that, a man wrote me, saying that solving crosswords edited by me was like taking a new mistress—not unpleasant, it just took getting used to. That’s how personal crosswords are.

7. I think of myself as more than a crossword person.
I’m interested in all kinds of puzzles. I wrote books of Sudoku. I helped introduce KenKen—a number logic puzzle invented in Japan—to the United States. I invent literally hundreds of varieties of puzzles. I do new sorts of things every Sunday on NPR, but the Times is the most prestigious job in puzzles. It’s just a great position. It’s creative. I’m stretching my mind every day. I have a laugh every day.

8. Every day is different.
Looking at mail. Editing clues. Making puzzles for NPR. Planning the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Planning the World Puzzle Championship.

9. I’ve also opened a table tennis center.
It’s one of the largest in North America. I play table tennis every day. June 30 was my thousandth consecutive day of table tennis. That helps keep me sane.

Photo by Andrew Hetherington

10. I get 75 to 100 crossword submissions a week.
Every puzzle has to be looked at and responded to: yes or no. My current assistant, Joel, really does the bulk of the mail work now, looking at submissions for puzzles he thinks have possibilities. He and I decide which will be yesses, and everyone gets a reply, and usually some comments on the puzzle.

11. On average, about half the clues in the puzzles are mine.
The most important thing is accuracy. Anything I’m not 100 percent sure of I verify, and then I edit for the proper level of difficulty, freshness, color, and just a sense of fun.

12. After the puzzles are edited we type-set them and send them to four test solvers, and they all call with comments and corrections.
Then the puzzles are sent to the Times electronically, where a friend of mine—a former national crossword champion—goes in, prepares the files, and tests the puzzles again. Every puzzle is test-solved and checked multiple times.

13. I get people who think there are errors all the time.
They are very rare. There are more than 32,000 clues, and there were five errors in all last year. People love to catch me in errors.

14. I do mind errors.
I really mind errors.

15. Election Day, 1996: Still my favorite crossword of all time.
It broke expectations. It goes against logic to have a puzzle with two solutions. That had never been done before. This was the year that Bill Clinton and Bob Dole ran for president. The clue for the middle answer was “headline in tomorrow’s newspaper,” and the answer could be “Clinton Elected” or “Bob Dole Elected.” Either one worked with the crossings. For example, the first down clue crossing the theme answer was “black Halloween animal.” You could have made that cat, forming the c of Clinton, or bat, forming the first b of Bob Dole. The next one was “French 101 word,” and you could do lui or oui, and each of these succeeding answers worked the same way. The clue did double duty.

16. Why do we like puzzles? I think it’s a way of putting the world in order.
Every day we’re faced with problems. Most of them do not have clear-cut solutions, and we just muddle through. We do the best we can, but we never know if we’ve got the best solution. The great thing about a human-made puzzle is we can take the challenge through from start to finish. And when we’re done, we know we have achieved perfection. We don’t get that feeling much in everyday life.

17. I’ll never get tired of doing this.
I genuinely enjoy everything I do, and I love the people I come in contact with through puzzles. They’re well-rounded people. They know lots of things. They’re a nice group to hang out with. Someone once said, “If you ever tire of becoming a writer, that means you have become tired of life,” and I feel the same way about puzzles. If you ever get tired of puzzles, then you’re tired of life.

Tony Wilson
A Visit With Doctor Laser: New York’s Resident Holographer
Tony Wilson
Tony Wilson

On an unassuming street in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood, a man by the name of Dr. Laser toils away. His given name is Jason Sapan, but when you’re at the helm of the oldest (and possibly only) holography gallery-slash-laboratory in the world, a colorful moniker only seems appropriate.

Laser’s Holographic Studios has been in operation since the later 1970s. Before that it was used for making medical instruments, and before that, was the site of a blacksmith’s forge. As the doctor himself says, his business is a logical tenant in that line of succession: he, like those who came before, specializes in taking objects, making them glow red, and giving them shape. Of course his work is a little bit different. He gives shape to things that aren’t really there.

When you ask Dr. Laser to explain the nuts and bolts of holography, his eyes light up (they do that a lot, actually). "Well grasshopper…" he starts, and from there, you just do your best to keep up. In brief, "a hologram is a recording in light waves of the surface of an object," but the process of capturing that impression is, of course, a bit more complicated. Luckily, he’s up to the task: "I wanna trip people out," he says.

The studio itself is pretty much exactly what you’d hope for when seeking out a holographic hotspot—it feels a bit like a real-life wonder emporium, and Laser’s larger-than-life persona only adds to the effect. The walls are lined with various holograms—some from his work with clients like Goodyear, Tag Heuer, and IBM, along with portraits (the one of Andy Warhol, made in 1977, is his favorite) and other holography miscellanea. In the next room, a wall bears the signatures of former visitors like Isaac Asimov and Cher. Downstairs, a cluttered subterranean workspace leads into a dark lab where lasers and light shows abound. If you’re lucky, Dr. Laser might even queue up the Flock of Seagulls music video he was in, which—fun fact—was also the first music video on MTV to use screen credits.

Holographic Studios is open Monday through Friday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and tours are available if you want the full, personal experience. And if a trip to New York isn’t in the cards, fear not: you can secure a hologram of your very own in their online store.

All photos by Tony Wilson.

Surprise, Motherf@#&er: Erik King on 10 Years of Dexter

At first, Erik King wasn’t sure he liked being a meme. As the relentless Sergeant James Doakes, who was immediately suspicious of co-worker and closeted serial killer Dexter Morgan on Showtime’s Dexter, King’s boiling-point performance arrived just as the internet was discovering new ways to capture bits and pieces of film and television.

“It was weird,” King tells mental_floss. “I had never had a performance taken out of context before, so it took some getting used to. But I found it flattering.”

As Dexter celebrates its 10th anniversary, King took some time to talk with us about Doakes’s untimely death, how his father inspired the character, and the art of surprising serial killers with tirades of profanity.

Was the intensity of Doakes on the page from the beginning?

I think it was clear who Doakes was. The intensity was there, but the disdain came later. The more Dexter eluded Doakes, the more he got pissed off. My father was in federal law enforcement and I have a lot of family and friends who are cops, so I knew a lot of them.

Was there any of your dad in the character?

There’s a lot of him in Doakes. He passed away in 2011, but I used to joke with him all the time. “You know, this guy is you.” It’s exaggerated, but he didn’t suffer fools. If someone parked in front of his house, there might be a colorful word or two coming out of him. And it was a public street. [Laughs]

Doakes and Dexter were usually playing a pretty cerebral cat and mouse game, but it occasionally got physical. Michael C. Hall once said he was taken aback by how strong you were while shooting a fight scene. Do you remember that?

I’m surprised he would say that, actually. If he thought that, he never let on. Michael is taller than me, you know. I had to bring my A-game. Doakes had to come at him like a bowling ball, had to hold his own, because I knew what was gonna happen in the end. As an actor, he always brought it.

The great flaw of Doakes is that he was suspicious of Dexter from the outset, which probably didn’t help his chances of survival. When did you know he would be dying at the end of season two?

It was either four or six episodes in out of the 12. One of the producers very kindly called me, which doesn’t always happen. He said, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, we’re writing some great stuff for you. The bad news is, you won’t be around much longer.” [Laughs] My first thought was how the rest of the cast would react, because I was and am good friends with them. I know the energy Erik King brings to the set and the energy Doakes brings, and I didn’t want to have it become, “Oh, what a shame.” So I kept it a secret for as long as I could.

Were you happy with the way he went out?

In order to maintain the integrity of who he was, he had to find out something [about Dexter]. It couldn’t have been eight or nine seasons of, “I’m watching you, motherf*cker.” That’s not going to work. Even though I wanted the character to hang around longer, I totally understood the choice.

Was there ever any discussion of Doakes surviving the cabin explosion?

Not with me. Once the cabin blew up and pieces were flying through the air, there was never a doubt in my mind.

Doakes had a way with words. How did you find out some of his choice profanity had become a meme?

I was at a gym in North Carolina trying to put some size back on when I was asked to return for season seven [in a flashback]. This guy comes up to me and says, “Did you see this website? They put Doakes in all these other movies.” You know, like Ghost—“surprise, motherf*cker.” Just little scenes. Someone would turn around and Doakes would be there.

As an actor, it was arresting to me, and kind of weird that Doakes had taken on a life of his own. Now it’s flattering. “French fries, motherf*cker,” all of that. I’ve seen it. [Laughs]

If that was weird, the Doakes bobblehead must have thrown you, too.

I have a couple of them. They have to send it to you for approval. “Does it look like you?” “Yeah, I guess it looks like me, kind of.”

What do you think would have happened to Doakes if he hadn’t crossed paths with Dexter?

Probably a police captain. The guy was really driven. He had a dogged determination. He and Dexter both. I always said they were like two pitbulls sniffing each other out. He keeps going until he finds what he’s looking for. And you see where it got him.


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