Quick, give me a 14-letter word for "often cross with words." If you said "cruciverbalist," then you'll probably want to take some time away from your own puzzle-solving schedule to see Wordplay, Patrick Creadon's enjoyable documentary about crossword puzzles and the people who love them. Otherwise, if you're imagining humanities geeks with dictionaries instead of slide rules and pocket protectors...well, you may not be so far off, in some cases, but wanna make something of it? (Yes, I've spent my share of time on the grids, and in case you're wondering: pen, not pencil.) Like Spellbound and Word Wars before it, Wordplay admires the folks who've given of their time so that no word challenge, however deviously constructed, might go unsolved. It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.
We open with a rather drab shot of the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Conn., site of the 28th Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament. That it was the site of the previous 27 tournaments as well suggests that 1) these people have a feeling for tradition, and 2) the off-season room rates remain quite reasonable. Before we meet our contestants, though, we're introduced to Will Shortz, crossword-puzzle editor for The New York Times, "Puzzle Master" for National Public Radio, founder of the tournament and holder of an actual college degree in enigmatology. Enigmatology, for those of you who haven't studied puzzles, is the study of puzzles. And by devising his own curriculum, Shortz basically set himself up for life, although who would have imagined that a way with words could take you so far? Pleasantly normal and normally pleasant, Shortz presides over the tournament like a benevolent wizard.
And when things start to slow down, as they will tend to do in a documentary about what is essentially a solitary activity, Creadon brings on the celebrities Ã?' various logophiliacs who aren't afraid to let their freak flags fly. Jon Stewart, all but challenging Shortz to a duel while completing one of his puzzles Ã?' "Come on, Shortz, bring it!" Ã?' is perhaps the most entertaining. But documentarian Ken Burns has some interesting things to say about the connections between crossword puzzles and the grid system that carved Manhattan into block after block of across and down, crossword puzzles having been invented in New York City back in 1913. And Bill Clinton, seemingly oblivious to the number of times that "Monica" comes up as a six-letter word for "unimpeachable character," points out how, as in life, one feels one's way to a solution, adding bits and pieces where one can, correcting mistakes when necessary.
And then it's time to bring on the word nerds, pencil-pushing speed demons who can work their way through the Sunday Times puzzle so fast you'll wonder whether they even bother to read the clues. (Turns out they don't, always.) My personal favorite is Ellen Ripstein, the self-described "little nerd girl" who made it all the way to the tournament finals, without winning, so many years in a row that she got herself dubbed "the Susan Lucci of Crosswords." Now in her 40s, Ripstein has preserved a childlike air, twirling a baton (poorly) in Central Park. But all the top competitors seem quite a bit like the contestants in Spellbound, many years later, still trying to arrange the letters in the right order. And some of them seem to eat, drink and sleep letters, their brains constantly shuffling through the alphabet for le mot juste.
Today, of course, most of us are shuffling through the single digits for le numero juste, Sudoku having come out of nowhere Ã?' okay, Japan Ã?' and conquered the puzzle world, seemingly overnight. Wordplay never mentions the S-word, not even Shortz, who resisted Sudoku puzzles at first but has since made millions off the things. Crucipurists like myself tend to look down on the number-crunchers, Sudoku puzzles requiring skills that computers are so much better at, whereas crossword puzzles Ã?' today's, especially Ã?' have an artistry all their own, the artistry consisting of their often clever, often amusing and sometimes infuriating play with words. In the early days, the clues were straightforward but the answers could be obscure. But then, in a revolution that rivaled the Copernican, puzzle creators started making the answers more or less straightforward and the clues obscure. An art form was born.
So how about a four-letter word for "Avon calling," starting with "b"? That's right, "Bard." And the Bard himself would have appreciated the puns, good and bad, that began to fill up those blank squares. He would also have appreciated the flexibility of mind that's required to deduce, say, "Nikita Cruise Chef" from "Premier Who Cooked on Yachts." The folks who dream up the clues for the Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament apparently take that kind of mental agility for granted, however, because the contestants are judged mostly on speed, as if this were NASCAR for brainiacs. An ill-placed letter will cost you dearly, but there don't tend to be many of those, not among the finalists, anyway. Instead, it's all about who can whip through the clues the fastest without stumbling, the ticking clock bringing an element of suspense to what might otherwise have trouble competing as a competitive sport.
We don't get to know the finalists quite as well as we did in Spellbound, nor do they move us in quite the same way, the kids having invested so much of their hopes and dreams Ã?' their futures Ã?' in the ability to spell words that most of us will never use in a sentence. But the final round is nevertheless fraught with suspense (well, filled with interest, anyway), given the possibility that Tyler Hinman, a 20-year-old IT major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, could become the youngest tournament champion ever by defeating the previous youngest tournament champion ever, Trip Payne. Hinman's success suggests that maybe the iPod generation will find a place in their hearts for what used to be the indoor national pastime. "Words Ã?' they connect us," Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls says, by way of explaining the universal appeal of this century-old time-killer. My own take? What can I say, it's puzzling.