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Puzzle master Will Shortz on his collections, table tennis and what continues to puzzle him

Jan. 30, 2014

IU alumnus Will Shortz has been immersed in the world of puzzles since he created his first at around age 8 or 9.

Since then, he has honed his knowledge through his individualized major in enigmatology at IU, the only such degree granted in the world; through years of puzzle collecting; and through his work as a professional puzzler: the editor of Games Magazine, NPR’s puzzlemaster and the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times.

Will Shortz

IU alumnus Will Shortz is editor of Games Magazine, NPR's puzzlemaster and the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times.

Shortz recently took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with Becky Wood, director of communications at the IU Libraries, to talk about his puzzle collection, his passion for table tennis, and what continues to puzzle him.

Becoming a collector

Shortz bought his first antique puzzle book, "Can You Solve It?" at a hospital sale in his hometown Crawfordsville, Ind.

But he didn’t think of himself as a book collector until his third year of law school at the University of Virginia. The school sponsors an annual essay competition about collecting rare books with prizes in a number of categories, including most interesting collection. Convinced that his puzzle book collection was a winner, Shortz wrote his essay and created a bibliography of his puzzle library. He didn’t win that competition, but since then, he's considered himself a rare book collector.

Shortz has over 25,000 puzzle books and magazines dating back to 1533. He describes his collection as both eclectic -- he collects anything related to puzzles that is in print including books, magazines and newspaper articles -- and ephemeral, filled with advertising trade cards, postcards, tickets and newspaper articles, things that are one-of-a-kind and normally thrown away.

One of the many gems of his collection is the only existing copy of the first crossword puzzle ever published.

It was the Sunday before Christmas, Dec. 13, 1913, and the New York World “Fun” Sunday supplement editor Arthur Wynne wanted something to liven up his newspaper’s games section. The grid Wynne created was diamond-shaped and appears simple compared to many of today’s crosswords.

After 100 years, Shortz’s copy of that puzzle, carefully stored in an archival sleeve, still retains its original colors.

Immersed in the history of puzzles

Shortz’s interest in the history of puzzles has deep roots. Between his junior and senior years at IU, he received a research grant to study the history of puzzles at the Library of Congress, where he spent most of his time in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room.

On that visit, Shortz discovered the National Puzzlers’ League and its magazines, The Enigma and before that The Eastern Enigma, connecting him with other puzzlers.

For Shortz, bringing people together has always been a primary goal. He has belonged to the National Puzzlers’ League since 1972, has served as program director of the group's national convention since 1976, and remains deeply involved in national and international tournaments and activities that transform puzzling into a competition.

Shortz wrote his thesis on the history of American word puzzles before 1860. He combed through material at the Herman B Wells Library as he conducted research, uncovering a microfilm copy of Puritan minister Samuel Danforth’s 1647 almanac, among the earliest surviving examples of the American almanac form. Along with Danforth’s musings on astronomy and religion, every month of the year he included a puzzle, specifically, a versified riddle. Puzzles held such a grip on people that even in a religious colony in the 17th century, people were creating and solving them.

Shortz spent weeks in the newspaper room in the basement of the Wells Library looking for puzzle columns in the bound volumes.

“IU has a great collection of microfilm and microfiche of all the early publications, so when I was studying the history of puzzles, I literally looked through every newspaper and magazine I thought might contain puzzles," he said. "I found a lot of great information on the history of puzzles through months of work at the IU Libraries.”

Shortz at the table

For many people, solving puzzles -- and crosswords in particular -- is a relaxing, refreshing activity.

Because puzzles are a job for Shortz, he turns to another activity to recharge: table tennis. Although he was a tennis champion in college, Shortz says the two sports are quite different in terms of their physicality, as well as the game behind the game. In both sports, you need to figure out your opponent, playing on your strengths and their weaknesses, but he compares table tennis to puzzles since both are what he terms “brain games.”

Shortz traces his history with table tennis back to Crawfordsville, where his family had a ping-pong table in their rec room. He played as a kid, won some trophies in high school and continued playing up until his early 30s.

He returned to the table in 2001 when his best friend found a table tennis club in Westchester County, N.Y., where Shortz currently lives.

The club offered table tennis two nights a week so Shortz played two nights a week, but that wasn’t enough. He convinced the club to offer a third night, so he was up to three nights a week. When that club closed, he found two community centers willing to offer two nights of table tennis each every week, so he was up to four nights a week. As he puts it, “Things progressed,” and now Shortz owns his own table tennis center. It’s the largest in the country and hosts international table tennis players, and he gets to play table tennis every single day.

What puzzles Will Shortz?

Will Shortz  | Becky Wood

In addition to serving as program director of the National Puzzlers’ League’s convention, Shortz is also the organization’s historian.

Founded in 1883, the league is the oldest puzzlers’ organization in the world, and it has weathered highs and lows, including almost dying out in the late 1960s for lack of interest. Around that time, an old puzzler offered for sale a complete set of The Enigma, the magazine of the National Puzzlers’ League, to anyone who was interested, agreeing to donate a certain portion of the price to support the league. Soon thereafter, evidence of the sale appeared in The Enigma, but the buyer was not named and remains unknown. Who bought that complete set, and where have the 17 earliest issues of The Enigma gone? That is what puzzles Will Shortz.

Do you know where those 17 issues are?

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