One winter morning several years ago, I got an email with some ridiculously exciting news. Or so I thought. The email was from a friend who informed me that the answer to 1-Down in that day’s New York Times
crossword puzzle was . . . me.
The clue was “A.J. _______, author of The Know-It-All
My first reaction was This is the greatest moment of my life.
My marriage and the births of my kids, yes, those were pretty good. But this! As a word nerd since childhood, this was the holy grail!
And then, a couple of hours later, I got another email that changed everything. It came from my brother-in-law. He congratulated me but went out of his way to point out that my name was featured in the Saturday edition of the New York Times
puzzle. As crossword fans know, Saturday is the hardest puzzle of the week. Monday’s is the easiest, with each day’s grid getting more and more difficult until Saturday, when the puzzle reaches peak impenetrability.
Saturday is the killer, the one with the most obscure clues, harder than Sunday. We’re talking clues like Francisco Goya’s ethnic heritage (Aragonese). Or the voice of the car in the sitcom My Mother the Car
(Ann Sothern). Stuff no normal person knows.
So my brother-in-law’s implication—or at least my interpretation— was that my Saturday appearance was the opposite
of a compliment. Unlike a Monday or Tuesday mention, it’s actually proof that I’m totally obscure, the very embodiment of irrelevance.
Dammit. I could see his point. No doubt this wasn’t the most charitable interpretation, and my rational side knew I shouldn’t let it tarnish my elation. But I couldn’t help it. I’m a master of focusing on the negative once it’s shown to me. It’s like the arrow in the FedEx logo. I can’t unsee it. My life’s highlight now had a galling asterisk.
Then, a couple of years later, my crossword adventure took another twist. I was on a podcast, and I told the tale of my emotional roller coaster.
Well, it turns out one of the people listening to the podcast was a New York Times
crossword creator. God bless him, he decided to take pity on me and save me from my end-of-the-week shadows. He wrote a puzzle with me as the answer to 1-Across, and submitted it to run on a Tuesday. Legendary crossword editor Will Shortz let it through.
became the true greatest moment of my life. I know full well I don’t belong in a Tuesday puzzle. It’s where truly famous names like Biden and Gaga make their home. I was thrilled to sneak in as an interloper. I mean, it’s not Monday, but it’s more than I could have hoped.
I emailed the crossword creator, who has since become a friend, and thanked him. He said it was no problem. Though he admitted that, to compensate, he had to make the corresponding down clues super-easy, like TV Guide
-crossword-puzzle easy. I’m okay with that.
As I hinted, there’s a reason my crossword cameos made me ecstatic beyond what is appropriate. Namely, I’ve been crazy for puzzles all my life.
Partly I inherited this passion from my family. When my dad was in the army in Korea and my mom was stateside, they’d keep in touch by sending a puzzle back and forth, each filling out a clue or two per turn. Not the most efficient method but certainly romantic.
So I was introduced to crosswords early. But I wasn’t monogamous when it came to puzzles. I embraced all kinds: mazes, secret codes, riddles, logic puzzles. As a kid who was not in danger of being recruited to varsity teams, nor burdened with a time-consuming dating schedule, I spent my spare time on puzzles. My bookshelf was filled with titles like “Brain-busters” or “Brain-twisters” or “Brain-teasers”— anything involving mental sadism. I programmed mazes on my school’s Radio Shack computer. I did hundreds of mix-and-matches in Games
magazine. Puzzles were my solace.
My enthusiasm didn’t wane as I grew older. Like my parents, I married a fellow puzzle lover. It’s her job, in fact. My wife, Julie, works at a company that puts on scavenger hunts for corporations, as well as private events. Our weekends often involve escape rooms or games of Mastermind with our three sons. For my birthday a couple of years ago, my son Zane created an elaborate mental obstacle course that included Sudoku, Rubik’s Cubes, and anagrams. It took me two weeks to crack, which didn’t impress him. I’ve even tried to recruit our dog, Stella, into the puzzle cult. I buy her these “doggie puzzles” where she has to flip open a latch to get her doggie treat. The manufacturer claims it will keep her canine brain stimulated, though I’m guessing Stella’s brain is mostly thinking “Next time, asshole, just give me the peanut butter on a spoon.”
After my appearance as 1-Down a few years back, I went from being an occasional crossword solver to a frequent one, perhaps unconsciously hoping I’d reappear. I did the Times
crossword every day. At first, I only solved a smattering of words in the harder puzzles. But eventually, after years of practice, I could reliably finish Saturday’s puzzles.
My addiction became a problem. One day, I decided I wasn’t getting enough accomplished in my life and I should quit all puzzles. I figured it would free up several hours every week. Who knows what I could get done? Maybe I’d start a podcast or run a triathlon or build a barn!
The experiment was a failure. After two months, I relapsed, and I relapsed hard. Puzzles once again began to mark the start and end of my day. Now, as soon as I wake up, I check my iPhone for the New York Times
Spelling Bee, a find-a-word game that is both compelling and maddening (What?! You’re telling me “ottomen” isn’t a word? Then what’s the plural of “ottoman”?!). Before going to sleep, I do Wordle and the Times
Since my relapse, I’ve come to two important realizations about puzzles.
1) I’m not a great puzzler. I mean, I’m okay. But as I started to meet real puzzlers, I got an insight into a whole other league. I realized I’m like the guy who plays decent intramural basketball, but is no match for the LeBron Jameses and Kevin Durants.
2) Puzzles can make us better people.
Okay, there’s a pretty good chance this is more of a rationalization than a realization—a way to justify all the mental energy I spend on puzzles. But rationalization or not, I believe it deeply: puzzles are not a waste of time. Doing puzzles can make us better thinkers, more creative, more incisive, more persistent.
I’m not just talking about staving off dementia and keeping our minds sharp. Yes, there’s some mild evidence that doing crossword puzzles might help delay cognitive decline (it’s probably not just puzzles that help—any mental challenge might delay dementia, whether it’s puzzles or learning a new language).
I’m talking about something more global. It’s been my experience that puzzles can shift our worldview. They can nudge us to adopt the puzzle mindset—a mindset of ceaseless curiosity about everything in the world, from politics to science to human relationships—and a desire to find solutions.
These insights sparked the idea for the book you are holding now. I decided to embrace my passion and do a deep dive into the puzzle world. I pledged to embed myself with the world’s greatest puzzle solvers, creators, and collectors and learn their secrets. I’d try to crack the hardest puzzles in each genre, from jigsaws to crosswords to Sudoku.
My hope is that the adventures and revelations I had will be entertaining and useful, whether you are a puzzle fanatic, a puzzle skeptic, or a full-on puzzlephobe.
Copyright © 2022 by A.J. Jacobs. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.