On a recent Saturday in March, Will Shortz, the director of the 37th annual American Crossword Puzzle tournament (ACPT) and editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, stepped up to the mic inside the Grand Ballroom of the Brooklyn Marriott. Behind him a digital clock the size of a large oven door showed “15:00” in neon red, ready to pop.
“On your mark.
Five hundred and eighty solvers flipped over puzzle No. 1 as though the wrist action were the main event. The room became silent, save for a cough here and a scratch there, as the competitors worked their brains to finish as quickly and as accurately as possible. The first to finish, five seconds later, was Dr. Fill—a computer program created by Matt Ginsberg, whose entry was outside the competition. Nearby, Dan Feyer, who would go on to win his fifth straight ACPT the next day, ripped through it 2:25.
Outside the ballroom, briefly away from the action, was Ben Tausig, 33, the founder and editor of the American Values Club Crossword (AVCX), a not-yet 2-years-old independent puzzle that is distributed to subscribers weekly via email. The posters at his booth in the hall, which showcased Americana like a bald eagle and Macaulay Culkin, were a tip-off to what his customers could expect. Tausig said the subscriber base is around 3,000, with sales swelling around holidays. This makes AVCX something of a leader in the independent crossword puzzle movement, which casts itself as an alternative to puzzles like the Times crossword. The Grey Lady’s puzzles are aimed at a wider (and likely older) audience that might not be cool with a theme that is, say, based solely on monikers for the penis. “I have great respect for him,” Will Shortz told me, of Tausig.
Tausig uses the crossword puzzle as a lens through which to examine knowledge, humor, and acceptable language—and by default, what is censored. His puzzles are clearly identified with the indie puzzle movement that began in the early ’80s with Stan Newman’s self-published Crossworder’s OWN Newsletter, “a premium product for serious enthusiasts” that was created, in part, due to Newman’s unhappiness with the Eugene Maleska-edited Times puzzle, which Newman felt had declined and relied too heavily on deep geographical knowledge. (Crossworder’s Own ceased publication in 1994 when Newman took over editing duties of the New York Newsday puzzle.) The indie puzzle did not return to significance until the turn of the millennium with Matt Jones’ feature, Jonesin’, edited by Matt Gaffney, whom Tausig deems the Otis Redding of crossword puzzles: “gifted, unparalleled in execution, and lively, but also soulful and serious.”
According to Gaffney, Jonesin’ was created because the editorial content of numerous alt-weeklies in the United States, and the content of the syndicated Times puzzles, now edited by Will Shortz, did not overlap. “Jonesin’,” writes Tausig, “intended to fill a gap by providing funny, pop-culture-laden themes about marijuana, tattoos, sex, and other subjects routinely covered by papers in alternative markets … and was the first successful independent of the young century.”
As part of Tausig’s demographic, I can testify to the specific appeal of his work to a new generation of solvers, for whom more traditional puzzles were often, well, puzzling. When I was a kid, my grandfather would hand me the New York Times crossword puzzle when he recognized he’d reached an impasse—apparently hoping that I could make a connection he couldn’t. But when he’d come back out onto the patio, and into the wet Floridian air, I’d hand back the puzzle, same as it ever was. I wasn’t much help to my father either, who primarily tackled late-week Times puzzles—ruthless pains in the ass, or the brain. (How was a 20-year-old frat boy supposed to tip him off to an entry like ONFURLOUGH?) The learning curve seemed steep. Still, I plugged away, a symptom, maybe, of a subconscious desire to overcome the fact that I’m a youngest child, hoping to prove that my aptitude was up to snuff. I worked puzzles constantly: inside in-flight magazines (fairly difficult, and never completed), Syracuse University’s The Daily Orange (done stoned, typically, and incompletely), Chicago’s public-transit rag, Red Eye (easy), and, of course, People magazine (intellectual Viagra). I continued to scratch away at the Times crossword, but it was rare that I’d complete anything past a Wednesday unaided. (Times puzzles increase in difficulty beginning on Monday, through Saturday.)
A couple of weeks before the tournament, at a restaurant in Harlem, near Tausig’s home, he ordered the Acapulco breakfast platter and told me about an email he once received from a woman who believed she knew that he was Jewish based solely on his puzzles. “It’s happened more than once,” said Tausig, who is Jewish. “Of course I tell them.”
The opportunity to include an entry like BRIS in his weekly puzzle excites Tausig, who said that the Times, in general, would shy away from an entry like that. “[The Times doesn’t] really do dick jokes,” he jokes. “To them, some people are going to know [what a bris is] but a lot of other people will only vaguely know. To me that’s gold.” In a 2007 Inkwell puzzle, Tausig clued BRIS as “Cutting ceremony.” Nearly five years later he clued it as “Event that is very difficult for new fathers, let me just say.”
He spoke from experience, as his readers already knew from previous puzzle clues: Tausig and his wife, Serena, had recently given birth to their first child, Julius. Tausig said he chose “Julius” because he feels an affinity for the type of 85-year-old Jewish man that the name recalls. “You know, just Jews with their glasses, with their attitudes, with their big hands,” he said. “It’s a very pleasant association.”
By breaking down the fourth wall between constructor and solver, Tausig welcomes solvers (should they have the brainpower) into the intimate details of his life. Tausig also enjoys poking fun at “ridiculous” politicians like Sarah Palin (a source of “amazing idiotic quotes”) and adding tinges of apologetic, self-aware sarcasm: “Your clue is ‘Pope who reigned from 987 to 984’,” said Tausig, referring to LEOIX. “And then in parenthesis—‘Oh, as if you know anything about a 10th-century Pope.’ ”
Tausig grew up in Akron, Ohio, and ran cross-country—“a nerd sport”—in high school. After graduating from University of Michigan he moved to New York on a whim. He met his wife-to-be, who also attended Michigan, through Friendster, a defunct social networking site that was popular before MySpace and Facebook. Tausig asked her out on a date to Jackson Heights to take in a Bollywood movie and a meal at Jackson Diner. “[Serena] claims that I ate half her food,” he said. On the way home she asked Tausig if he’d ever been to Roosevelt Island. He hadn’t, so they hopped off the train near midnight in the dead of winter. They married in November of 2009 and soon moved to Thailand where Tausig recorded and analyzed the music and sonic environments of the Red Shirt political protests in Bangkok as part of his doctoral research in ethnomusicology at NYU.
When he became interested in constructing puzzles in 2004, he never imagined that his idiosyncratic interests would combine into the DNA of an actual career—one in which a wide variety of knowledge and experience probably helps. His wildest dream was to land a puzzle in a serious daily newspaper and then hang it on his wall as a novelty. Soon, however, he became near obsessed with creating workable themes and puzzles. So, he sent an email to CRUCIVERB-L, a discussion forum for crossword constructors associated with Cruciverb.com, asking to swap puzzles for mutual feedback. He received a reply from Nancy Salomon, “a prolific constructor,” who agreed to be his mentor (Will Shortz said that “I think [Salomon] probably has the record of collaborating with more constructors than anybody else”).
As Tausig’s aptitude grew, so did his confidence; eventually he found a voice. “I would write [Salomon] multiple times a day, and she never seemed to mind,” Tausig said. In their final mentor-mentee exchange, Tausig, “in a combative mood,” defended his work to Salomon, whom he felt was being harsh. “Nancy replied,” writes Tausig, “that given how I replied she now knew that I was truly ready.”
Tausig sold his first puzzle to USA Today in September 2004. Within months, the New York Times (“the Cadillac of crosswords”), the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Sun also accepted his puzzles. He began to wonder, however, if he could write a puzzle for a younger crowd, with timely cultural references that would stick out to that demographic. In December 2004, he pitched the idea to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which gave him the green light. Tausig also peppered his puzzles with content that was specific to the geography of the paper in which it was published; a hook that enabled Tausig to sign on alternatives in Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., under the name Ink Well. Tausig’s puzzles are currently syndicated with 10 clients across the United States, and in 2006 he signed on to edit The Onion’s AV Club crossword as a separate editorial venture.
In late 2013, Tausig published The Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles From Then and Now, marking the crossword puzzle’s centennial existence. The nearly 200-page, square-shaped book is part history lesson, part workbook, part opinion, and part memoir. The book’s essays, which are interspersed with gems of related puzzles, are straightforward, humorous, and unapologetic, much like their author. On Tuesday of this week, Tausig announced on Twitter that he’d cease publishing Ink Well crosswords to focus primarily on AVCX and on his new position as a professor of music at SUNY Stony Brook.
My history of casual ineptitude changed when I was 26. Every week I’d meet my friend Steve at Pita Queen, a Mediterranean gem on the north side of Chicago, where we’d bum Marlboros from the cook and down chicken kiftas over games of Boggle. Warmed up, we’d take on The Onion’s AV Club crossword, edited by Tausig. His Onion AV Club puzzles were a revelation. For one, it felt less heavy to pick up a satirical gazette that runs headlines like, “Area Teen Smoking Like He’s Been to Fucking War or Something,” than to pick up a newspaper that published journalism about actual war. The content of the puzzles—clues, fill, and themes—was more playful and more perverted than anything I’d ever come across in mainstream venues. And they were free.
The seven Onion AV Club constructors, including Tausig, seemed to reach through the pages to grab your heart, brain, and genitals at once, as if to say, Hey, we too have vices and struggles and contradictory beliefs, and the tapestry of our ken looks kind of like yours with its taste in Southern hip-hop, gallows humor, computer code, niche artists, Jewish jokes, Dan Savageisms, and Internetspeak—and we’re comfortable with that. ALQAEDA might have intersected with DILF—clued as “Sexy pop, slangily”—a play on the M.I.L.F. acronym (Mom I’d Like To Fuck) coined by American Pie—while a puzzle’s theme, like one created by Byron Walden, might feature the birth of Suri Cruise.
After The Onion dropped the crossword, Tausig formed The American Values Club crossword (AVCX), a digitally distributed reincarnation of the Onion AV Club puzzle “except with more puns about Jesus and smartphones or whatever” and took to Kickstarter to fund it with an initial goal of $10,000. By December of 2012, over 900 backers had funneled $26,000 toward Tausig’s project, including Walden, Francis Heaney, Patrick Blindauer, Aimee Lucido, and Brendan Emmett Quigley (aka “BEQ”), the sixth-most published constructor during Shortz’s current 20-year run as the Times crossword editor. Each constructor takes home a piece of the revenue-sharing pie. One slice, said Tausig, has the potential to pay much more than the Times ($300 for a 15×15 puzzle).
As these numbers suggest, very few can make a living from constructing alone. “It’s difficult to imagine people would continue writing puzzles at $85 a pop,” said Tausig, referring to the Los Angeles Times’ current payout. “We pay an amount based upon how much we earn in a quarter. Last quarter it came out to $500 a puzzle.”
The indie puzzle audience may not be large, but it is definitely fervent. Disagreements over clues and entries are common in the crossword community, a boiling lifeblood that is fueled by a number of blogs, including Rex Parker Does The NY Times Crossword Puzzle, written by Michael Sharp, an English professor at SUNY Binghamton, and Diary of a Crossword Fiend, created by Amy Reynaldo, a top-10 ACPT finisher and author, whose cast of bloggers includes Gaffney and Joon Pahk, a Harvard-educated former Jeopardy! champion (who himself has a pretty sweet and simple word game of his own).
Embracing the pace of the digital age means that Tausig is constantly on the lookout for new language, which he adds to a personal running dictionary of around 200,000 words, phrases, and acronyms, like LGBT. Recent additions include SOCHI and PUSSY, as in PUSSYRIOT. Failures to keep abreast of current events—and the way they are being received—is seen by the solver community as a serious offense. The Feb. 25, 2014, New York Times puzzle by Matthew E. Paronto and Jeff Chen clued KIEV—the Ukrainian capital city then in the midst of a violent revolution—as “Chicken _____.” Sharp reviewed the puzzle (ignoring the Times’ publishing and syndication lag) and wrote, “How do you give KIEV such a bland, fill-in-the-blank clue … when it’s such a major political hotspot at the moment? I guarantee you the city is mentioned in the NYT. Today. Come on, man.”
Tausig said that one aim of the AV Club puzzles is to reflect a perception for the pervasive emotional state of the solver base, as influenced by the news cycle or weather. A test that editors often use is the “Breakfast Table Test,” a litmus test to determine whether or not specific content would foment uneasiness and spoil a meal. Tausig cites that Margaret Farrar, the inaugural editor of the Times puzzle—she was hired in 1942—was the likely the first editor to employ it, rejecting an entry like BLOODTESTS, “which apparently evoked disease.”
Tausig believes that the puzzle is a method of escape from the if-it-bleeds-it-leads news, a means for commentary, often with a comic spin. He also noted that the number of PDF downloads for his ACVX puzzles, which he emails, outnumbers digital puzzle files downloads by far—a hat-tip of sorts to the feeling of solving on paper, which creates an odd sense of momentary permanence for this deliberately transitory form, “each part of each letter a visceral engraving.”
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Jonathan Zalman, a staff editor, runs The Scroll, Tablet’s news blog.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.