Since I seem to have fallen into the role of Keeper of the Crossword Statistics in the blogosphere, let's start today with a look at how unusual and amazing today's Friday, August 22 puzzle by Kevin G. Der is.
Most of the crossword numbers I track are just for fun. That's another way of saying they're mostly meaningless. In sports, there are few stats that even fans really care about. In baseball the one that captures our imagination is home runs in a season. In hockey it's goals in a season. In basketball it's the number of groupies you seduce (Wilt Chamberlain claimed 20,000) and in football, I think it's most criminal convictions in a month but that's just a hunch.
In crosswords, it's fewest blocks (black squares) in a standard 15 by 15 puzzle. Here's a little history.
An even dozen puzzles in the Will Shortz era have only 21 blocks. Amazingly, eight of those are by Manny Nosowsky. Then on January 19, 2001, Joe DiPietro went one better with this puzzle. That record stood for over four years until Mr. Nosowsky reclaimed the title with this incredible 19-block puzzle. Like Babe Ruth's record, it seemed invincible but today in only his fifth at bat for the NYT, Kevin G. Der knocks one out of the park with an astounding 18-block construction. If you find this sort of thing intriguing, here's the list of puzzles with the fewest and most blocks, and this collection of thumbnails shows what the puzzles with the fewest blocks look like.
As a solver, of course, these sorts of records are interesting but rather incidental to the puzzle experience. If you're a successful editor, you understand that completely. I asked Will Shortz about this puzzle and here is his response:
As I've said many times, but it bears repeating, I don't run puzzles to break records. A crossword has to have great vocabulary and be exceptionally fun to solve in order for me to accept it. To me Kevin's puzzle more than meets this test. The record is just a bonus.
I got a heads up that something unusual was coming so I was able to interview Mr. Der for this special occasion:
KGD: I sporadically did the syndicated Boston Globe daily puzzle in high school but I didn't really get into crosswords until I saw Wordplay in the summer of 2006. I think I saw it twice in theaters. There is a good theater in Cambridge that shows independent films and I remember seeing a trailer for Wordplay at some point and that got me excited about it. Before Wordplay I wasn't aware of the level of creativity that went into the best crossword themes, or that anyone could submit a puzzle for consideration. I started solving the New York Times after that as well as constructing. I think Will accepted my fourth submission and I was ecstatic when I got the email; anyone who has had puzzles accepted knows the feeling. The first couple of puzzles I sent in were embarrassing and I had no idea what I was doing, but I got really nice feedback about them.
JH: You're a computer science guy at Stanford, is that correct?
KGD: I work at a startup in Palo Alto and I'm also a PhD student at Stanford in computer science though I'm taking some time off school currently. Normally being a PhD student means doing research, so constructing has helped fill the gap here because in both cases you're trying to do something that no one else has thought of before and that takes a lot of creativity. For me, themed puzzles are in general much more fun to make.
JH: I presume it was a conscious effort to break a record. True? Can you say something about the evolution of this puzzle?
KGD: On the Wordplay DVD, there are some excellent featurettes about really special puzzles that have been in the New York Times. One of them was about Manny Nosowsky's 19 black-square puzzle and I love the way Joe DiPietro says "I'm talking six hours, every day, for months!" when he talks about how long it took to make a 20. I worked on trying to break the record on and off for about a year. It took a combination of publicly available software, online dictionaries, software I wrote myself, manual construction, and a bit of patience.
JH: What influence did Will Shortz have?
KGD: Aside from starring in a movie that I love, Will is very supportive of new constructors which was a big help. He knows what makes a strong submission so there is a constant motivation to make the puzzle as high quality as possible.
JH: Have you ever met Manny Nosowsky, the previous record holder?
KGD: Pretty much I've only met other crossword people at ACPT that I went to for the first time this past year, and I don't remember seeing Manny. He has certainly set the standard for both themed and unthemed puzzles, and according to your website he has had over 200 puzzles in the New York Times, which is jaw dropping. I also really like Elizabeth Gorski's beautiful themes and Merl Reagle's humor. The fact that Merl makes puzzles completely by hand is astonishing as well.
So, let's talk about the puzzle. The top and bottom have triple-stacked 15-letter answers and they're all smooth. Three of the six long clues are debuts but they all sound natural: RUSSIAN LANGUAGE, INSURANCE BROKER, and NEAREST RELATIVE.
You would expect a lot of rare words in a record-breaking puzzle and you'd be right. Most of them are great. Like the CIA, the NYT puzzle doesn't like to admit to TORTURE but that word debuts with this wonderful Marcel Proust quote: "Love is reciprocal ____.”
A surprisingly few words are iffy. "Open" is UNSHUT. "Condomless vis-à-vis protected" is UNSAFER which makes some sense. You might suppose sex is either safe or unsafe but I guess some unsafe practices are less safe, I mean are unsafer than others.
I couldn't finish this one without Internet assistance but I could tell the shape was special so I wanted to slog through to the end. I'm glad I did. What a puzzle. Congratulations, Mr. Der. I can't wait for your next one.