All Episodes

August 2, 2023 43 mins

If you follow Martha very closely, you may know that she is one of the legions of puzzle players who obsessively play The New York Times’ word games. The NYT launched its famous crossword puzzle in 1942. Now, 81 years later, they are paying serious attention to the business of games. Sudoku. Wordle. Spelling Bee. Tiles. As the news organization grows its digital portfolio of games, waves of puzzle players are signing up. Martha is delighted to talk word games with Will Shortz, The New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor, and Everdeen Mason, the first-ever Editorial Director of Games at The New York Times. Listen in as they discuss how puzzles are constructed, the origin of Sudoku, their favorite Wordle “starter words,” and so much more.   

See for privacy information.

Mark as Played

Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
What's the record for the Sunday puzzle.

Speaker 2 (00:01):
Maybe four minutest or four minutes something like that, But
there's no reason to race, you know. It's like going
to a four star restaurant and thinking how fast can
I eat this meal?

Speaker 1 (00:16):
Hello everyone, this is Martha Stewart. At four am. When
I can't sleep, I do the New York Times Crossword Puzzle,
the Mini crossword Puzzle. I do tiles if I like it.
I don't like all of the tiles, and I also
try wordle and I do letterbox, which I really like,
and I'm really good at letterbox. For some reason, many

set aside a little or a lot of time, depending
on one skill level, on a daily basis to keep
their minds sharp and solve what has affectionately become known
simply as the puzzle. In addition to the puzzle, there's
a newer set of puzzles many can enjoy, from spelling
be to tiles. I'm sure many of you have puzzles

of all kinds that you love and will enjoy this
episode of our podcast, we have two of the rock
stars in the puzzle world joining me here at Samsung
eight three seven Will Shortz the crossword puzzle editor and
known as the Puzzle Master to millions of public radio listeners,
and Everdeen Mason, editorial director of Games at the New

York Times. Welcome Will and Evergine. I'm so happy that
you're sitting across from me here in this beautiful studio. Hi,
and It's true that I'm a terrible sleeper. So the
first thing I do when I wake up is open
my iPad, which if I haven't gone to sleep with
it on and it's already expired, then I have to

get my other iPad. So and I go right to
I do the mini crossword puzzle first, then I do letterbox,
then I look at tiles. But we will talk about
it each of these games. It's just really interesting that
The New York Times has really a department of more
than fifty people working on puzzles. So how did this happen? Will?

Can you explain what's this explosion in the interest of
puzzles or has it always been there?

Speaker 2 (02:18):
Well, of course, the New York Times has had a
crossword since nineteen forty two. I started the year after
I was born.

Speaker 1 (02:24):
They knew I was going to like.

Speaker 2 (02:26):
Puzzles, and I started at the Times in nineteen ninety three,
I was only the fourth Times Crossword editor, and when
I started it was just a department of one. Basically
I had an assistant to do proofreading and some other things,
but it was just me. The crossword has become more popular,

and I think that the world has become more puzzle
friendly lately. And I have a couple theories for this.
Why there is more interest in puzzles now than ever before.
I think it's because the world has changed in way
that more of us are using our brains now in
our regular occupations, especially with computers. And once you're done

thinking about your regular work, well your mind doesn't stop.
It just keeps going on. So you want to do puzzles.

Speaker 1 (03:14):
Well, I noticed it with children. I have two bright grandchildren. Truman.
Truman told me about auto check on. I didn't even
know that I could auto check my puzzles, of course,
but he does all the puzzles every morning. He's ten.

Speaker 2 (03:30):
You have a good grandson.

Speaker 1 (03:31):
And my granddaughter can do wordle in no time. She
they are very good with language, but she's she's twelve
and she just does whatever. You know, all the puzzles.
They can do it so fast and so now now
that I realize it's also a timing thing with like
the mini, you should be able to do that? What
in a minute? Fifty or what's the record record?

Speaker 3 (03:58):

Speaker 2 (03:59):
And I know someone who has solved the New York
Times crossword, the regular crossword in fifty three seconds.

Speaker 1 (04:06):
Fifty three seconds.

Speaker 2 (04:08):
It's just online online, of course that's using Yeah, yeah,
it's online because you can type faster than.

Speaker 1 (04:13):
You can write, right, right, Oh my gosh, that is amazing,
that's incredible. Well, how many people really do work on
the crossword puzzle itself? This is the big crossword puzzle
and the mini. How many people are working on those puzzles?

Speaker 2 (04:29):
There are six of us editors and Everdeen as the
editorial director, so.

Speaker 1 (04:35):
She holds the whip.

Speaker 2 (04:37):
The whip.

Speaker 1 (04:37):
Yeah no, but but who right? Who makes the puzzles?

Speaker 2 (04:40):
So the crosswords, almost all of them come in from contributors.
We publish now I think more than two hundred different
puzzle makers a year, wow. And they come from all over.
It's a very diverse group.

Speaker 1 (04:53):
And serious puzzle doers, puzzle solvers or they know the
different the different authors, don't they.

Speaker 2 (05:00):
We've been publishing a lot of new people as well, yeah,
and we got about two hundred submissions a week. Every
puzzle is looked at by I think at least two editors,
and then the puzzles are winnowed down the ones that
are likely yeses or possible yeses, and then we as
a group editorial group have maybe's meetings by zoom and

we discussed the pros and cons of the puzzles and
accept the ones we want.

Speaker 1 (05:27):
Do you ever throw out one clue that's inappropriate or well.

Speaker 2 (05:31):
Of course we can change clues anytime, and I'd say
on average half the clues are ours because we're very handsful.
They are, we're very hands on editors. But yeah, sometimes
if there's.

Speaker 1 (05:42):
This, so what is how does the puzzle come in
from a contributor, all with all the words in the puzzle.

Speaker 2 (05:47):
So people submit puzzles as they would like it to
be published, completed grid and all the clues. Until a
few years ago, the puzzles came in by mail hard copy.
Now submissions are done digitally.

Speaker 1 (06:01):
So the editing really takes place in the clues more than,
of course, than the world.

Speaker 2 (06:05):
It can be both. We can revise grids as well,
say we think it's a great puzzle, but there's a
corner with a lot of crosswordies or maybe something obscure
or something we just don't like, we can ask for
the puzzle to be revised, or sometimes we revise the
grade ourselves.

Speaker 3 (06:22):
Yeah, and actually I want I want to fall up
and say so, I've been on the team now for
almost three years, and in those that time, we've made
a lot of changes to our crossword submissions and editing
process and I'm just like really proud of the team
of how much they've been able to adapt and it's
just allowed us to do better work and also be

able to publish all kinds of people. So, like Will said,
we get the puzzles digitally now. We build a new
CMS content management system so they can edit online. We
have processes where we get feedback from testers, multiple testers,
and everyone can review them. We work for their head now,
so we can like make last minute changes if we

have to. What else would you say we've added?

Speaker 1 (07:08):
Are some of the some of the answers? Two words
in the crosswords?

Speaker 2 (07:11):
Sure, we use lots of phrases.

Speaker 1 (07:12):
Why didn't we call it the crosswords? That irritates me
that sometimes there's more than one word?

Speaker 2 (07:19):
Is really interesting phrases were introduced in the nineteen fifties,
actually so long. In the very early days, a phrase
would say two words in parentheses afterward.

Speaker 1 (07:29):
Yeah, but it doesn't say that anyway.

Speaker 2 (07:31):
We don't baby you with that.

Speaker 1 (07:32):
No, they do not. And I didn't try Yesterday's a
Sunday crossword? Was it hard?

Speaker 3 (07:40):
I always think they're it's such a large puzzle. So
I don't know if you know, but the Sunday is
the same difficulty level as a Wednesday puzzle in terms
of like the words that are included in the cluing.
But it's just so massive.

Speaker 1 (07:54):
It's so massive. And I have one former employee who
started doing the puzzle. I probably when he was in college,
and he's still a young guy, and he has kept
a notebook with all his puzzles, and he finishes every
single Sunday puzzle and puts it into his notebook, and

it is so beautiful to see his accomplishment because those
puzzles are very difficult. And I had another friend I
might have mentioned that to you will a long time ago,
Dorian Lee, who was Susie Parker's sister. These were two
most beautiful models you've ever seen. Their famous models and
Dorian would do that crossroad puzzle in like an hour

and Sunday morning, or maybe even less than an hour,
but she was so proud of the fact. What's the
record for the Sunday puzzle must be very short.

Speaker 2 (08:46):
It would be maybe four minutes or four minutes something
like that. Yeah, but there's no reason to race, you know.
It's like going to a four star restaurant and thinking
how fast can I eat this meal? It makes no sense,
you know, sit back and enjoy it.

Speaker 1 (09:02):
About how many people do the puzzle every week? Do
you have any idea now with the digital world and
your app as well as the published edition.

Speaker 2 (09:11):
Yeah, well, first of all, the daily paper has the
circulation about seven hundred and forty thousand, and my understanding
from the past, I don't know what the current figures are.
That's something like more than a quarter of New York
Times readers solve the puzzle in print. Then the puzzle is.

Speaker 1 (09:29):
Also that's only less than two hundred thousand.

Speaker 2 (09:32):
And then the puzzle is syndicated to hundreds of other newspapers.
I think that probably most the bulk of our solvers
now are digital digital.

Speaker 3 (09:41):
Yeah, yeah, and we're not allowed to share exact figures,
of course, but it's millions of solvers who are solving
the many in the crossword alone every week, and then
when you add on all of our other games, it's
kind of scary a lot.

Speaker 1 (09:55):
But both psychologists and other scientists are always saying that
to keep up your puzzle solving if you can, just
to keep your mind fertile and agile, And it's like
going to exercise class, but it's for your brain and
your mind instead, and recall is so important as you
get older too. I think I think probably many of

those puzzle solvers are probably on in age. Yeah.

Speaker 2 (10:21):
Yeah. I had a brain specialist at my house a
few years ago and we were talking about puzzles and
I said, sort of naively that crosswords use all parts
of your brain, and he said that's not quite true.
They use most of parts of your brain, but not all.
And then I mentioned later that I played table tennis
every day, and he said, ah, table tennis uses every

part of your brain that crosswords don't. So I feel
I get a full, full brain workout every day.

Speaker 1 (10:51):
I have to take up my I have a beautiful
table tennis table up in Maine, and I'm going to
make sure I do that. In addition, there you go,
my crossword puzzle, oh.

Speaker 3 (11:02):
Op, should be the same, don't you think.

Speaker 1 (11:05):
Don't you think that the digital world has really and
the digital editions of newspapers and books and everything else.
I think that has helped the crossword puzzle get even
more users because it reaches so so many more people.

Speaker 2 (11:19):
It's true, it's more accessible. Yeah, it's more accessible. You know,
crosswords have the reputation of being mainly for older people.
I think that used to be true. It's not true anymore.
Our readers are solvers at the times range from smart
kids basically up to as old as people get. I
think we're living in a puzzle age. You know, Puzzles

have never been better than they are now, and I
think more people are doing them than ever as well.

Speaker 1 (11:45):
Yeah, well, you have a new puzzle that I just
can't understand at all, the one on the upper left.
And then I still at the newspaper.

Speaker 2 (11:53):
Good for you.

Speaker 1 (11:54):
I get the newspaper every day, and I also get
that I also have the app and the and the
digital news paper. What is that new puzzle called the
one with match the dots only two dots on each
line and they know two dots can touch?

Speaker 2 (12:07):
Oh not touch?

Speaker 1 (12:08):
Yeah? Not touch? Yeah?

Speaker 2 (12:10):

Speaker 3 (12:11):
I hate that one.

Speaker 1 (12:13):
I hate it. I don't. I maybe it's because maybe
because I'm in the car when I'm trying to do
it and it's jostling and you can't really see. It's
a little bit obscure to c in the car, do
you Oh? I love and I love ken Can. I
do ken Can all the time. I do. And my
driver is always amazed because I circle it when I

finish it, and he said, oh, that was only a
few seconds. I said, yeah, Well that's what it's supposed
to be, right, Yeah.

Speaker 3 (12:38):
So do you go through and you play all the
puzzles in the paper and then you do all the
ones online.

Speaker 1 (12:43):
Well some aren't online, some aren't in the paper, so
Letterbox isn't in the paper. And one another one that
I do not like is Vertex. I just don't like that.
I don't get it. It's like it's like paint by number.
I know, but it's so silly. It's silly. I can
consider that not worth my time.

Speaker 2 (13:02):
So I feel like the game section it's like the
newspaper itself. You know, you're not going to read every
single article or do everything in the paper. So we
hope with the games that there are some that you
love and you don't do the ones you don't want.

Speaker 3 (13:15):
Yeah, and we're in an exciting time where we get
to try a lot of stuff. So I think people
don't realize how involved the team is. So like we
have I think we have almost ninety people total now
on the games team, which includes you know, editorial of course,
but we have product designers, we have engineers, and we
work I get to work pretty closely with them. So
we're constantly receiving internal like pitches that we have several

stages of prototyping, and we test them out and we
toss them out, and we just really want to see
kind of like the range of what people are into.
We're known for our word games. I think that's always
what we're going to look to be best at. And
but you know, we want to try some visual puzzles.
We want to try some you know, number puzzles. It's
been it's been really fun and it's been really.

Speaker 1 (13:58):
Fun to say what's your favorite visual puzzle?

Speaker 2 (14:02):
My favorite?

Speaker 3 (14:02):
Okay, I do love tiles, Yeah, I do love time.

Speaker 1 (14:07):
Are lame.

Speaker 3 (14:08):
Okay, I really like our new one. It's called Connections Topeka. Oh,
I do love Connections. Your Connections is good. I think
that was good. I've been really excited to see that,
and I got on it at first, but then it
was really good.

Speaker 1 (14:22):
That I spend even a half an hour doing puzzles
in the morning is so great. It makes me feel good.
It makes me feel like I'm ready to get up
and do it. Well.

Speaker 2 (14:33):
You know, most problems we face in life don't have
clear cut solutions. We just muddle through and with crossword
or tiles or whatever. When you have achieved the perfect solution,
it just makes you feel good and you're ready to
go back to everything else.

Speaker 1 (14:50):
In life, go back to work. Right, what do you
do every day? Will? What puzzle do you do besides
the crosswords?

Speaker 2 (14:55):
Idle every day?

Speaker 1 (14:57):
You and I don't know when this Today was a
hard word.

Speaker 2 (15:01):
It was hot hard, you know, the the tough. It
took me five and I average under four. Today was
hard because it was blank, oh, blank blank y and
the other why.

Speaker 1 (15:13):
As you got why, I got oh, I got O
and b.

Speaker 2 (15:17):
Well, my first two words I always start with the
door because I read.

Speaker 1 (15:23):
My granddaughter starts with start for the door.

Speaker 2 (15:25):
Actually, I always start with a rose because I read
once that that is a great starting word, and that
gave me or a yellow O. And then I did tulip,
try some different letters. Got nothing at all there, So
after two steps, I'm just got nothing.

Speaker 1 (15:41):
And if you don't know what we're talking about, you
must look at wordle and if you, I mean, it
is so much fun to take these, take these hints.
A door, a rose, I use alias, I use adios alias.

Speaker 2 (15:55):
That's interesting.

Speaker 1 (15:56):
Good is good.

Speaker 2 (15:58):
A lot of people use a do A d I
e U because it uses jew.

Speaker 1 (16:02):
I do that one too. My granddaughter uses a jew
well mar.

Speaker 3 (16:05):
I don't know if you knew, but I do. I
have somebody who reviews the world every day. They write
up about like their process. No, I read that, but
she couldn't. She couldn't solve this one. Oh yeah, and
she's very good.

Speaker 1 (16:16):
And I'll tell everybody what it was. It was hobby,
and I, with so many hobbies, should have gone that
in no time.

Speaker 2 (16:25):
After the O and the Y, I guess boggy, which
was wrong. But I got a yellow B, so then
I knew it had to be hot.

Speaker 1 (16:32):
That's good. Yeah, yeah, but it was. It is so
much fun. And then and you do have a little
coterie of friends if you're a puzzler who then they
email me and say, oh two, I got it into today.
Oh I got it one. Yeah right right, I've only
that's happened to me once, and that was it's just
pure luck. One, it's just luck. So the mini is

is it more popular than the big one?

Speaker 2 (17:06):
It is? It's quick, you know, it's free, it's okay,
that's something great. And also it's perfect for the modern
age because the regular crossword is going to probably take
you fifteen minutes to an hour to do, and people's
lives are so busy now, yes that a mini is
a bite sized puzzle can take you a minute or

two to do and then you're off to the rest
of life.

Speaker 3 (17:29):
And it's faster to make. So Joel Fogliano, who's like,
would you say he's your protege, Yeah, yeah, yeah, Joel's
fabulous and he writes all of the minis unless like
he was on leave and so even I wrote a
mini which was really fun, but they it goes faster
and so he can be more reactive to like what's
going on in the world. So every now and then

he does purposely like put in things that are just
like things he thought of or things he like heard
on the radio or in the news, And so I
think it it's an easier.

Speaker 1 (17:58):
Yeah, how often crosswords have a theme?

Speaker 2 (18:03):
Everything from Sunday to Thursday has a theme. Fridays and
Saturdays usually not. Those are wide open diagrams, which means
lots of white squares, very few black squares. A theme
will If you have a lot of theme material in
the puzzle, then you're gonna end up with a lot
of three, four and five letter answers. And there's not
that many of them in the English language, so the

same words appear and again, again and again. Once you
remove the constraint of a theme, then you can open
the grid to vocabulary you've never seen.

Speaker 1 (18:33):
Before, and that happens often. You think now, as slang
played a big part in crossword puzzle design. Now, I
mean there's so much a slang or new or new
usages of words or new words that you don't even
think are in the dictionary.

Speaker 2 (18:51):
Yeah, we don't necessarily go by the dictionary because there's
everything in life can appear in a crossword. I'd like
to think that we're sort of arbiters of what's significant.
So but once slang sort of permeates society.

Speaker 1 (19:06):
It sounds like the philosophy of The New York Times
in general.

Speaker 2 (19:10):
Yeah, yeah, we debate a lot.

Speaker 3 (19:13):
It's kind of hard to note because culture just moves
so fast now that like there's no guarantee that anything
will be a phrase people use for longer than like
a minute. Like remember when everybody like everybody's calling all
the gen z.

Speaker 1 (19:24):
There's L in the crossword puzzle.

Speaker 3 (19:28):
Okay, well o L has been around.

Speaker 1 (19:30):
I know, I know, but yeah, you just happen to
be there, you know.

Speaker 3 (19:32):
Yespression of but we go we Yeah, I think I
think we debate about the ones. One of the things
that's nice with the larger puzzle editing team is it's
a very wide range of people of like race and
gender and sexuality and age, and so we can all
kind of someone in that room knows that what they're
pretty much every thing that's happening.

Speaker 2 (19:51):
That's true.

Speaker 1 (19:52):
It's kind of amazing. So why does The New York
Times take on the world of puzzles in such a
strong way? Would you say that you, as an newspaper
have the most puzzles. Oh, I don't that's a good question.

Speaker 2 (20:05):
I don't know. We have the best puzzles.

Speaker 1 (20:07):
Yeah, yeah, and you have very good puzzles, and you
spend a lot of money for Wordle. That's true that
many years ago, a.

Speaker 2 (20:14):
Year and a half, a year and a half, a
year on January last year or sometime last year. Yeah.
The reason The Times doesn't is because it's profitable.

Speaker 1 (20:24):
Mister Wardle, who wrote Wordle, did he bring the puzzle
to The Times and say, I'd like you to I'd
like to sell it to you.

Speaker 2 (20:32):
I think so.

Speaker 3 (20:33):
Kind of he wanted it to be us, is my understanding.
But obviously I'm sure lots of people asked to buy it, but.

Speaker 2 (20:42):
He thought that The New York Times would be a
good caretaker for it. Somebody else might cheapen it, yeah, yeah,
and he didn't want that.

Speaker 3 (20:50):
And we do have. One of the reasons why I
like doing games at a place like The Times is
even though we're a very separate department, but we still
have you know, I an editorial employee, I am still
held to the same standards as all of the other
editors and journalists in the room. And there's kind of
a a level of quality and like sincere rigor and

ethics that goes into everything, including the puzzles. And so
I think that, you know, it means that, you know,
it makes sense that we make puzzles because we have
all the fact checking resources, we've got the brains in
the room, we know words like nobody else. But it
also means that, like we're going to be pretty obsessed
with making sure that it's above board and that it's
really positive experience. And so I think it makes sense

that word will ended up with us. We're going to
do our best effort to make sure that it remains.

Speaker 1 (21:40):
What prepared you ever doing for your job. Ah, were
you always a puzzler? Is that the right word to
call you a puzzler? Yeah?

Speaker 2 (21:48):

Speaker 3 (21:49):
Yeah, I would say our puzzle editors are all deeply
in this world and in this community. And I was not,
you know, I was a person who did crosswords with friends,
you know, who pass around something at the table or
like at dinner, or like I like my little puzzles
like video games, you know, so on and so forth.
But it wasn't until I started at the Times in
earnest that I really the world kind of opened up

for me, I would say my preparation is just like
I love words, I love fun things. I was like,
oh cool, I can have a job where I make
people happy all the time. It turns out people are
mad at me all the time. But I hot it
would make people happy all the time.

Speaker 2 (22:27):
And what everyding's not saying? She was a writer for
the Washington Post and especially in science fiction.

Speaker 3 (22:35):
Yeah, I was a book calmnist for a while. I
was also on the audience team. So I have a
really wide range of experiences. So I've been in journalism
for fifteen years. I've been a writer and editor. I've
done an audience stuff.

Speaker 1 (22:45):
Did you go to college?

Speaker 3 (22:46):
I went to a hell state. Yeah, so I've kind
of like done a lot of production and I really
like nothing makes me feel better than like shipping something
like we made a thing and now it just gets
to go out there. And in this job, I don't
think I've ever able to make like so many things,
launching newsletters, launching columns, launching new puzzles and then kind

of still getting that opportunity to you know, it's kind
of hard when you become a bureaucrat. You don't get
to make the thing anymore, and so like, I still
feel like I get to have my hand in both
where I can advocate for the team and like make
sure they get everything they need so that they can
just make really cool stuff and not have to worry
about the boring stuff. But I also still get to test,
and I get to debate, and I get to play

with everybody else.

Speaker 1 (23:27):
So and well, how long have you been at the
times you mentioned?

Speaker 2 (23:30):
I joined it in nineteen ninety three, so this is
my thirtieth year, I think, and having a party, a party.
We should have a party, So I have a party.
I think the anniversary is some like November twenty one,
so we should do something special.

Speaker 1 (23:45):
Then, yes, you should, But you've been You've been such
a stalwart fan of the entire puzzle world, and so
and so outspoken and interesting about the puzzle world, and
uh and so and so many people rely on you
for their daily good Really, it's an amazing it's an

amazing feed.

Speaker 2 (24:08):
Actually, well, the best part of the job is the
people we come in contact with, both the puzzle makers
and solvers, Because puzzle people tend to be smart, interesting,
often funny, well rounded people, often with good sense of humor.
Uh and maybe a little quirky. And I'm definitely quirky myself,

so uh and crossword puzzle people are my kind of people.

Speaker 1 (24:33):
Do you read a lot?

Speaker 2 (24:34):

Speaker 1 (24:34):
I read voraciously, Read voraciously. What's the best book you've
read lately?

Speaker 2 (24:39):
Huh? I've been a middle of a novel right now
called The Puzzle Master. Oh uh. And it's about a
man who has a brain injury and uh becomes a savant.
He's an expert puzzle solver and this is a real thing,
it's not just fiction. And he's called in to to

a mysterious case to try to figure out what's going
on with this strange prisoner. That's as far as I've gotten.

Speaker 1 (25:08):
It sounds like a good book. And what about you, Everdeen?

Speaker 3 (25:13):
I also read a lot, and I read very broadly,
mostly fiction, though I don't know, I want to escape reality.
But I just read It's an old book, but it's
all over creation by ruth A Zeki, and I love
ruth A Zeki. Her work is just mind blowing. It's
like funny and tender and interesting. So I've been working

my way through her back catalog since I read her
most recent stuff.

Speaker 1 (25:36):
Oh great, yeah, great. I find that fiction to me
is I live fiction every single day, so I read
a lot more nonfiction now than fiction. I have a
hard time getting through some story books. I've just read
Cornick McCarthy's newest novel before he died, and it was
not good compared to his other books. I mean, I

just wasn't as exciting as No Country for Old Men,
you know, those fabulous books. Well, anyway, how did sudoko
come about? Because that's an interesting puzzle.

Speaker 2 (26:10):
Right, So I'm actually the person who discovered who invented it? Oh,
and I'll tell you how I discovered it was the
first one appeared in nineteen seventy nine in a magazine
Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games, and it had the
name number place. Then the Dell magazines didn't do bylines

on the puzzles, but at the front of every issue
they listed all the contributors in the issue. I collect
old puzzle magazines, and I went back to my collection
of these magazines and found that every issue that had
this puzzle had a certain name in the contributors list
at the front, and no issue that didn't have this

puzzle had this person's name. So by process of elimination.
I discovered it was invented by Howard Garnes, was an
architect in Indianapolis. The puzzle became a regular, semi regular
feature in these magazines, and then nineteen eighty four there
was a Japanese puzzle editor in the United States found

this puzzle. He couldn't solve our word puzzles, but he
found sodoku, loved it, took it back to Japan where
it became successful.

Speaker 1 (27:21):
Was it always called sudoku?

Speaker 2 (27:23):
No, we called it numbers place they called it. They
introduced the name, so.

Speaker 1 (27:27):
I thought it was I always thought it was a
Japanese Yeah, it was.

Speaker 2 (27:31):
Most people don't realize it was an American invention. And
then there was a judge, retired judge from New Zealand
in Japan, saw this puzzle, loved it. He created a
computer program for generating sudoku. Interestingly, he brought the puzzle
to the New York Times around two thousand and five,
and I didn't see it. It went to somebody else

and the Times rejected it. So we took it to
the Times of London. They published it in two thousand
and four. It was an immediate hit and started appearing
in all the papers immediately became a collection of Sodoka books.
Was the number one best selling book in Britain in
early two thousand and five, those books, and then that's

spread around the world.

Speaker 1 (28:15):
And what inspired the spelling bee? Which is my property manager.
He has to do the spelling b before he comes
to work.

Speaker 2 (28:22):
Gotcha, that's real time late.

Speaker 1 (28:24):
And I know it's the spelling bee, and I get
really mad at him because he's you know, he's probably
way up there in the number of words. When did
that start?

Speaker 2 (28:34):
It started? I think in twenty fifteen.

Speaker 1 (28:37):
Describe spelling be because the.

Speaker 2 (28:38):
Spelling bee is a it looks like a beehive. There
are seven letters that you can make words from, but
the letter in the middle of the hive has to
be used in every answer. And the other unusual feature
about spelling bee is that you can repeat letters in
your word. So if a letter appears, you can repeat
it as often as you want.

Speaker 1 (28:57):
And the jackpot is always.

Speaker 2 (28:59):
If you can use all seven letters, and it's called
a pangram and you get bonus.

Speaker 1 (29:03):
For that, right, And that is that? And what bother
I think? Can you? You can't tell how many words
you can make. Nobody tells you that.

Speaker 2 (29:12):
I think the reason is that it would set up
an impossible expectation. You know, there's a listening for genius,
and if you achieve genius level you should feel satisfied.
But if we say, yeah, the score, your top score
is whatever, then if you're a puzzle fanatic.

Speaker 1 (29:31):
We can we find out with AI. Now if I
ask my chat bought, can can I find out how
many words you could make out of it?

Speaker 3 (29:39):
Probably, although we may not accept all of them, it
gets at it.

Speaker 1 (29:43):
Yeah, I know sometimes you don't accept my favorite words.
Then there are really words in the dictionary. How come boy?

Speaker 2 (29:50):
We accept It's very subjective.

Speaker 3 (29:55):
I said, this is that's a part of the fun
of it, like it could it computer human.

Speaker 2 (30:03):
It's subjective. Yeah, And if you find a word that's
not on our list, well you should count it.

Speaker 3 (30:09):

Speaker 1 (30:10):
I think I wrote in and they said, well, it's
not on our list, so.

Speaker 2 (30:15):
We count words that we consider comments.

Speaker 1 (30:17):
So, of all the games that are online, and you're
offering New York Times online games, which is the most
popular word a word word word? Straight away?

Speaker 3 (30:30):
Yeah? I mean it was already getting sogular. It was huge,
and then it got Huger and now it's kind of
like mellowed out, but it's still just still huge, huge,
the scale of it.

Speaker 1 (30:43):
Some of my friends, I'm getting I'm tired of it,
but it's still tantalizing.

Speaker 3 (30:48):
Yeah, it's also of those weird things where it's like
it's like a yawn, Like if I see somebody on
the train playing it, like I immediately like, oh, yeah,
I should just like go ahead and knock one out
because it's so fast.

Speaker 2 (30:57):
That's part of the appeal and the social get back ones.

Speaker 1 (31:01):
Can you get former ones? Because if I forget to
do it yesterday.

Speaker 3 (31:04):
Uh, Yesterday's not yet, not right now, I don't think so.
I wish you could maybe eventually.

Speaker 1 (31:11):
Editor, editor, would you please put these yesterdays? Well you forgot,
here's yesterday.

Speaker 3 (31:18):
I'll call my people like Martha says that she wants
yesterday's puzzle.

Speaker 1 (31:23):
That would just be nice, just because, especially if you
have the subscription, you should be able to go back one.

Speaker 3 (31:29):
We're working on it. I think people don't realize like
that the app's been around for a while, but we've
only fairly recently been really investing a lot of resources
into it. So if for people who didn't know now
pretty much all the games are in the app, including
Sudoku tiles. That was not true last year.

Speaker 1 (31:45):
You know, I really love the squares, the colored squares.

Speaker 3 (31:48):
That one's called oh trect I love uh trect. Yeah,
it's like a city in the Netherlands. I don't know
why it's named to that.

Speaker 1 (31:55):
I love that one. Yeah, and it doesn't come out
very often. It's not every week.

Speaker 3 (31:59):
No, you can play it all the time. You can
always toggle your your Oh you can. Yeah, you can
choose every day. Oh I didn't which one? Yeah, I
feel like a lot of people. I feel like every week.

Speaker 1 (32:08):
I like, what's that you have to get rid of?
That one? That is like now you know a friend
of mine? Then when came up with Foodle. Do you
know Foodle? Have you tried it?

Speaker 2 (32:23):
I don't know? Tell us.

Speaker 1 (32:25):
Yeah, well it's just like Wordle, only all the answers
have to do with food.

Speaker 2 (32:29):
And it's always five letters.

Speaker 3 (32:31):
Uh huh.

Speaker 1 (32:32):
Yeah, it's exactly the same game. How could you do that?

Speaker 2 (32:35):
You think you'd run out of five letter of foods
after a while.

Speaker 1 (32:37):
No, she does it and everybody loves it too. That
that's that's online. So how do you make money? On
a game like Wordle through subscriptions. No, because it's free.

Speaker 3 (32:48):
There's an ad on it now.

Speaker 2 (32:50):
I think there's recently an ad was added and also
it said it attracts people to the New York Times game,
so it pays for itself that way. Well.

Speaker 3 (32:58):
And I think a lot of people just didn't realize
a that we had multiple games newer to this crossword
and puzzling community. I think a lot of people have
a lot of preconceived notions about these puzzles, like you
have to be really smart, or it's only for older people,
or it's so on and so forth. So I think
Wordle introduced a lot of people to are sweet and

made them realize that this is something that they can do.

Speaker 1 (33:32):
Well. My daughter is a puzzler and she's the one
who introduced them all to her children children, and they
have really adopted them as a way of life. Yeah,
and it's really nice and there their phones were blocked
from other things they can't but they are not blocked
to to puzzles or the New York Times. Yeah. The
kids read the New York Times from cover to cover,

especially the Boy every single day.

Speaker 2 (33:55):
Wow, that's going to be one smart kid.

Speaker 1 (33:57):
Oh yeah, and he reads really fast, so he knows
if I mentioned anything. I have to argue with him
about it because he's already read about it. But it's
kind of fun. But it's nice to see them do
these puzzles. It's nice to see them use language so nicely.
And I think that that really does the word games
really help you with language and increase your vocabulary and

make your teachers happier so that your essays are more
interesting if you increase your vocabulary, That's true.

Speaker 3 (34:23):
It doesn't feel like a waste of time. Like if
your boss walks by your computerity doing the Crossword, can
they really be mad?

Speaker 2 (34:28):
I don't know.

Speaker 1 (34:29):
I don't think you can't. These puzzles have also been updated,
making them younger or more broadly interesting. Is that a
big objective of the game world?

Speaker 2 (34:41):
Absolutely? We want the crossword and the other puzzles well,
we went there in particular. We want the Crossword to
reflect the life, culture, and language of everyone who reads
The New York Times and the whole history of the
Times Crossword. Up to me, there are only six teenagers
known to have been published, and a about sixty teens

have been published since I started in nineteen ninety three
and the youngest being twelve. I think we.

Speaker 3 (35:08):
Started a fellowship on the team because we wanted to
introduce more people to the art of constructing, and we
do have the best buzz letters and constructors. So now
we're taking six now and we take them. They each
get assigned a mentor, which is one of the puzzle editors,
and they work for a period of two months to

make a New York Times worthy crossword. Wow and yeah,
that submission worthy.

Speaker 1 (35:34):
Theyppled it. Apply.

Speaker 3 (35:36):
Yeah, so you apply. Yeah, you apply to it. And
it's specifically it's called the Diverse Crossword Constructor Fellowship, which
is a mouthful. So we take you know, we're looking
for people of color, or looking for women, we're looking
for people of different sexualities, any age range. We get
people from all over there. We get constructors from all
over the world anyway. But it's been really cool to

see the people who apply and have opportunity to work
with them one on one and teach them how to
do this, and like Will said, it will naturally just
reflect who they are. So we've been really trying to
diversify who we publish as a means of being more accessible.

Speaker 2 (36:12):
We've done this twice now, and everyone who has been
part of the program has had at least one puzzle
published in The Times.

Speaker 1 (36:21):
Very exciting, it's been. I'm always excited when I'm a clue.

Speaker 2 (36:24):
Yeah, okay, yeah. How many times have you been.

Speaker 1 (36:27):
I have no idea? I have no idea?

Speaker 2 (36:30):
Times four times?

Speaker 1 (36:31):
Oh, I've been a clue four times?

Speaker 3 (36:33):

Speaker 1 (36:33):
Oh hope. It's always fun. Sometimes you have more than
you have the same clue in a short period of time.
I've always couldn't got always distressed.

Speaker 2 (36:42):
Yeah, that happens.

Speaker 1 (36:43):
That happens with all those editors. I don't know.

Speaker 3 (36:45):
I think you have to sometimes there's only so many
ways to say things right.

Speaker 1 (36:49):
Although me and my friends we talk about critical I
love your puzzles.

Speaker 2 (36:53):
When your name appears in the crossroad, do you hear
from friends?

Speaker 1 (36:57):
Oh? Yes, of course, of course. When I see your
friend's name in there, I called my friend too.

Speaker 2 (37:03):
There was a newswoman in I think NBC newswoman who
wrote me once. She did not realize how many of
her friends solved the New York Times Crossroad until the
day her name appeared in the puzzle, and she started
getting calls and messages at six am.

Speaker 1 (37:21):
So it's exciting. Yeah, so get back to this Connections thing,
because that's a new beta. You're just still in beda
to beta. Yeah. I wondered why I haven't seen it.
I don't see it everything.

Speaker 3 (37:31):
Yeah, so that means it is every day. It's web only,
it is. So our new games process is pretty complicated.
So again, we got pitches from all over the company
and we review them and we do several rounds of
like user testing. But when we got to a point
where like we think that this could be really cool,
they asked me to find somebody to make these boards,

and so we tapped win Aloo. She's all of my
the puzzle editors are just like the brains are so
special and I knew she would kill it. So we
asked her to make you know, three two three months
worth of boards, and we started publishing them. And it's
doing really well because it's a really fun game and
we're still experimenting. So we've been reviewing like feedback that

we're getting, you know, things like solve rates, like how
hard is it too hard? Is it too difficult? What
kind of changes we should make, and we'll try to
incorporate that and then we review every couple of weeks
to be like, okay, should we keep going? So we'll
probably decide on whether we want to make it into
a full game in a couple of weeks to months.

But it's been a really fun experience.

Speaker 2 (38:38):
Of some of the New York Times games that are
computer generated, but a cool thing about Connections is that
it's human generated. It has to be made by a person,
so when you're when you're playing Connections, you're matching wits
with another human being, not with a computer.

Speaker 1 (38:53):
And the reaction has been good.

Speaker 3 (38:54):
Yeah, it's been really positive, and it's it's just doing
really really well out of the gate. We've made attested
other games before, and this one just like took off,
which I felt very validated because I love word games,
so like all I ever want to work on is
word games. So I feel bad because I'm on the
green light committee and anything that's not a word game,
I'm like, I don't know, I don't know if this

is the right fit. But so I'm really excited that
this one's taking off, So I'm feeling really hopeful.

Speaker 1 (39:20):
But AI can can create puzzles too, right have you
tried that? We have?

Speaker 3 (39:24):
It's not very good.

Speaker 2 (39:26):
AI can make bad puzzles.

Speaker 3 (39:28):
Your job is safe.

Speaker 2 (39:29):
Well, I think I'm good for now.

Speaker 1 (39:32):
So it can make puzzles though, yes.

Speaker 2 (39:35):
Yeah, I mean it can write clues. I don't think
AI yet. It can't come up with consistently good clues,
can't come up with a great crossword theme, and it
wouldn't know what is a good crossword grid and what
is not. So it's crosswords are still a very human activity.

Speaker 1 (39:52):
So can you tell us any funny stories about puzzlers
that your community, the New York Times community, tell us
a story? Will you have so many?

Speaker 2 (40:02):

Speaker 3 (40:03):
Well, so wacky. Sometimes I tell stories of my friends
and they're like, you're just saying mad lips, and they're like, no,
this is.

Speaker 2 (40:10):
Sort of a touching story. But several years ago, a
woman was was going into brain surgery and her greatest
fear was that she would not be able to complete
the New York Times crossword after surgery. So when she
came to the first thing she asked for was the newspaper,

she solved the puzzle and she knew that the surgery
had been successful.

Speaker 1 (40:34):
As see, that's a very nice story.

Speaker 3 (40:37):
Yeah, And the community is so strong, so we have
a we have the wordplay column, which deb Amlin was
like the main writer for it. Now we have a
couple and that community in the comment threads is so loving.
They like know each other, they talk to each other.
The spelling beform is also huge, and people they it
starts always like about puzzles and tips and stuff, but

then they start talking about their lives and like how
these puzzles help them connect with other people, how they
do these puzzles with other people, and it's really, uh,
it's really validating to see and see that like we
can kind of facilitate that kind of.

Speaker 2 (41:15):
I don't know, like group culture, and that's true and
friendship when people when puzzle people get together either in
person or online. Of course some of the conversation is
about puzzles, but what we have in common as puzzle
people is brains, lively brains, so we connect in many
other ways as well.

Speaker 3 (41:35):
Yeah, my uh, one of our other commons, her name
is Sam Corbin. She started recently and she said something
really smart that I loved, which is that like one
of the most human things is to like make your
own fun and that's like really all that a puzzle
or game is, and so you know, people are just
naturally drawn to that and they just want to talk
about it and they want to keep making fun.

Speaker 1 (41:53):
Well, I think schools should also use some of these
puzzles as as a I think some do oh way
too encourage kids to use their brains even more.

Speaker 3 (42:02):
Do we see it in the data actually when schools
when school is out, because kids like can play the
puzzles on their little school laptops, right, and it's not
gonna be like blocked. It's the New York Times, and
so we actually see it in the data. It's really funny.

Speaker 1 (42:15):
Well, Everydeen and will thank you so very much for
joining me here today. You each have a great.

Speaker 2 (42:22):
Job, and we really do you do.

Speaker 1 (42:24):
I'm envious of your jobs to play many of the
games we discussed and to keep your mind sharp, listeners,
pick up a copy of The New York Times or
play the games at New York Times dot com slash crosswords,
or download the New York Times Games app, and good
luck with keeping us pleasantly occupied for many many more

years to comp both of you. Thank you so much.
Advertise With Us

Popular Podcasts

Dateline NBC
The Nikki Glaser Podcast

The Nikki Glaser Podcast

Every week comedian and infamous roaster Nikki Glaser provides a fun, fast-paced, and brutally honest look into current pop-culture and her own personal life.

Stuff You Should Know

Stuff You Should Know

If you've ever wanted to know about champagne, satanism, the Stonewall Uprising, chaos theory, LSD, El Nino, true crime and Rosa Parks, then look no further. Josh and Chuck have you covered.

Music, radio and podcasts, all free. Listen online or download the iHeart App.


© 2024 iHeartMedia, Inc.