A lifetime of doing crossword puzzles, compounded by the seemingly endless vocabulary lists that I studied in high school, eventually led me to Stamford, Connecticut, where I participated in the New York Times Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
I started doing these puzzles from the time I was seven or eight years old, inspired by watching my mother tackle the daily puzzles in the New York City newspapers. The more that I did them, the more fascinating they became. Rudimentary puzzles present clues that are more knowledge based and straightforward. As the difficulty of a puzzle increases, it is the clues that change in complexity. This wordplay is often expressed as puns and anagrams (my favorites) or obscure second or third definitions of a word. As puzzle master, Will Shortz, said to the contestants at our welcome dinner on Friday evening, “Solving a crossword puzzle is not just pure intelligence, rather it’s a unique kind of intelligence that allows the solver to see things in a unique, and slightly perverse manner.”
In preparation for the tournament, I was doing three or four puzzles a day. I also was timing myself, and depending on the difficulty of the puzzle, a 15 by 15 grid, the size of a daily puzzle, I was solving them in anywhere from six to twenty-five minutes. (Traditionally, the difficulty of puzzles increases as the week progresses. Mondays are the easiest and Saturdays are killers.) Sunday puzzles have a larger grid, 21 by 21, and have the difficulty comparable to a Friday puzzle. As the tournament approached, I was doing the Sunday Times puzzle in under 45 minutes consistently. Always in ink, always. Hot stuff, or so I thought. The approximately four hundred contestants in attendance came from all areas of the United States. Not surprisingly, there were a disproportionate number of contestants from my alma mater, The Bronx High School of Science. Most of the people were very chatty and in the course of our repartee, it became obvious to me that I was not going to be one of the elite solvers. There were people in this crowd that were completing Sunday Times puzzles in twelve minutes! That’s right, twelve minutes! The names of President Clinton and John Stewart came up frequently, both men being lauded as people who could solve the Sunday puzzle in twenty-five to thirty minutes.
The first day of the tournament consisted of eight puzzles. We were given fifteen minutes to solve the 15 by 15 grids and 45 minutes to solve the 21 by 21 grids. The scores were posted early the next morning and the top three scorers were then pitted against each other to solve the final puzzle while standing on stage in front of the rest of us. (For those of you who are curious, I finished two hundred and fifth out of the four hundred and twenty participants). This year’s contest ended in dramatic fashion with the ultimate winner earning the championship after having finished in the top three seventeen times before. Her past performances had earned her the moniker of “The Susan Lucci of Crosswords.” And now she was the Champion. This particular edition of the tournament later became the focus of the film Wordplay.
Two months later, back home in Los Angeles, my friend asked me whether I would like a chance to meet the now former President, Bill Clinton, who would be in Los Angeles for the purpose of fund raising for the gubernatorial campaign of Grey Davis. “Bring a check for twenty-five hundred dollars and meet me at the home of super market magnate Ron Burkle at nine in the morning tomorrow.” That evening, I contemplated how I would present myself. I didn’t want to be one of the usual supplicants that the President was used to meeting and posing with for the obligatory snapshot. I decided to give President Clinton a gift that I hoped would give him some enjoyment and that would somehow distinguish me in his memory. What I decided upon was making a copy of all the tournament puzzles to present to him the following morning.
There was a big tent set up on the lawn of the Green Acres estate and at exactly nine a.m. the president made his entrance. I was the first person to walk up to him, and as I introduced myself and shook his hand I said, “Mr. President, everyone here this morning is here to ask you for something, but I am here to give you something. I just returned from competing in the New York Times National Crossword Tournament and everyone was talking about what a good solver you are, so I made copies of the puzzles for you and I hope you will enjoy them.” He started grinning and chuckling and responded, “I don’t know if I will be able to do them.”
“Mr. President,” I responded, “everyone said that you were an ace at solving, but don’t worry, I’ve also included a copy of the answer grids for you.” And with that, I gave him the envelope containing the blank puzzles and the answer key, as well as a pen bearing the name of my animal hospital and my name.
Six weeks later, upon returning from a mountain biking trip to Moab, Utah, my wife, Linda, gave me an envelope that had arrived which she had haphazardly torn open. In it was a typewritten note, signed by the President, thanking me for my kindness and thoughtfulness and expressing how much enjoyment he had from solving the puzzles. I called Will Shortz to tell him about what had happened and asked him to set me up with a constructor that could customize a puzzle for me to send to the President that would invite him (and Hillary) to our house for Shabbos dinner the next time he was in Los Angeles. I sent this unique puzzle to the Clinton offices in Harlem, but never heard back. Who knows whether he ever got the puzzle with the myriad of correspondence that he receives.
But several years later, I had an experience which confirmed that I had given him the right gift at our meeting. When visiting the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas this past summer we eventually made our way to the gift shop. I did purchase a coffee mug but what touched me the most was a gift that was given to the visitors – a crossword puzzle with the clues created by one William Jefferson Clinton!