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Crossword Puzzle Enthusiast

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Open the morning paper, flip through TV Guide, browse in magazines like Fortune or People, and you'll notice a common thread: crossword puzzles. They're everywhere. Even if you've never solved one before, you may want to start your own club.

Crossword puzzles became widely known in the early 1920s. Within a decade, they were featured in almost all American newspapers. Some suspect that it may be the most popular pastime around, probably because it's loads of fun, cheap (practically free) and mentally stimulating.

Crossword puzzle solvers use wit, a love of words and tidbits of useless information to complete the connecting black and white grids. Clever clues guide them through a maze of horizontally and vertically positioned words.

These puzzles can fill a morning, and beginners may waste an entire eraser in one sitting.

Crossword puzzles can be solved just about anywhere. An airplane, a car (as long as you aren't driving), a bedroom or study hall are all suitable. The Internet also is serving up crossword puzzles at record speed. Some Web puzzles are printable, while others use Java to let you fill them in online.

The beauty of crosswords is that anybody can give it a whack. The only heavy moving necessary is clearing the cobwebs in your mind, and there is the chance that your brain may ache at the end of a puzzle.

Crosswords range in strength from elementary to mind-crushing. The New York Times weekend puzzle is considered one of the more challenging and is solved by millions.

Each puzzle also uses themes, such as the Academy Awards or famous cities. The clues are linked to the theme. If you're an expert in baseball, you might want to take a stab at a baseball or sports theme puzzle first.

Scrabble and Boggle are, in a sense, crossword puzzles. These games unite groups of people, so they are more social activities than pencil and paper crosswords.

Some would disagree that puzzles are a solitary activity. Solver and constructor Ray Hamel watched his grandmother fill in the top half of a puzzle while his grandfather tackled the bottom.

The run-of-the-mill crossword is the checkered one with single clues for up and down words, known as the standard American crossword puzzle. Cryptic crosswords are more difficult and require a greater handle on word play.

Clues are written in two distinct parts to throw you off. One part is a normal definition of the answer, and the other is an additional hint about the answer's literal make-up.

Getting Started

All you need to get started is a sharp mind, a pencil with an eraser and, of course, the puzzle. The jury is equally divided on whether or not using a dictionary is cheating. But if you're only competing against yourself, you get to make that choice.

Anyone of any age interested in word play, says Hamel, can start with some of the easier puzzles in the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and Monday's New York Times.

Although people automatically assume that only those with a love of English will enjoy crosswords, Nancy Schuster, a former editor-in-chief of Dell Champion Puzzle Magazines, says a lot of "math people" like crosswords too.

"I think there's something about a crossword diagram's pattern that intrigues them in some way, or the logic steps you have to think out," she explains.

Many enthusiasts find themselves attending crossword tournaments or entering contents. Jean M. Paul once knew a guy in his 80s who won an airplane in a contest. The payoff is usually not so generous though.

Nancy Salomon says competition is brutal and you have to be quick. "I'm slow as molasses," says Salomon, who now constructs puzzles.

Solvers live in a close-knit community through the Web, says Salomon. "Before I got online, I used to feel I was pretty much working in a vacuum. Both constructing and solving tend to be solitary pursuits, but the Internet has changed all that."

Once you master solving crossword puzzles, you can learn how to construct puzzles and sell them to newspapers and magazines, as well as over the Internet. Salomon is one such constructor. Thinking up themes, building and filling the grids, and creating clues are the steps in constructing puzzles.

Manny Nosowsky, a 67-year-old retired surgeon, sells puzzles to the New York Times and occasionally to other publications. He finds satisfaction in using the technical and creative skills necessary to construct them.

Like Salomon, Nosowsky likes the fascinating subculture of solvers and constructors. Each year, he attends the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and chats with editors, solvers and fellow constructors.

Hamel publishes about 100 puzzles a year, and says, "As they say in the business, no one ever got rich writing crosswords." Pay ranges from $15 to $80 for smaller puzzles, to $50 to $325 for a more comprehensive one. "You can probably count on one hand the number of people who do the work full time."

Those who learn the ins and outs of crossword puzzles usually like professions that involve words, such as an editor, an English teacher or a proofreader. Hamel is a librarian. But if you really want to take your chances in a competitive field, constructing and solving puzzles can earn you a few extra dollars.


American Crossword Puzzle Tournament
The site for the tournament that everyone lives for

Ray Hamel's Web Page
Mammoth list of links to puzzles and resources

The National Puzzlers' League
Understand cryptic crosswords

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