The wonders of word games

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Like most college students who need to hear a xylophone ringtone go off approximately 23 times before waking up for an 8 a.m. class, my phone’s “Clock” app is swamped with alarms. Amongst this graveyard of forgotten alarms from early classes, indulgent naps and scatterbrained reminders is one alarm that I have yet to turn off in five years. 

10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time is a special time for “verbivores” around the globe. English majors, musicians, doctors, store clerks, old people and young people alike come together at this time of day for the digital release of the next “The New York Times” crossword puzzle. 

To a lot of people, crossword puzzles are nothing more than poorly-made filler activities to pass time. They keep kids quiet and occupied at restaurants. They take people’s minds off the fact that they are stuck in a metal tube, thousands of feet off the ground, for the next several hours. They are handed out in middle school Spanish classes to unwilling students for new vocabulary practice.  The majority of people are unaware of the brilliant craft that crossword puzzles have the potential to be. 

Even “The New York Times,” the king of crossword puzzles itself, thought crossword puzzles to be a waste of time, only throwing one into its paper as a lighthearted distraction in 1942 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Since then, crossword puzzles have boomed in popularity, picking up many unique conventions along the way that make the 15×15 word riddle into the genius work of art that it is today. 

One of the oldest stylistic rules in the book is that all crosswords in “The New York Times” must have rotational symmetry, meaning that a puzzle can be rotated 180 degrees and still be symmetrical in shape. This rule alone creates an incredible challenge for puzzle makers, who not only have to build a map of connecting words but also have to make sure this puzzle has the exact answers that will give it perfect symmetry.  Beyond this central rule are the puns, themes and play-on-words that appear throughout the entirety of the clues.  In a sense, building a crossword puzzle is a puzzle in and of itself. 

Not only are most of us oblivious to the wonders of “The New York Times’” crossword puzzles, but the world of those who enjoy the puzzles religiously is hidden from most of society.  “Wordplay,” a 2006 documentary, steps into this realm and captures a glimpse of the chaotic lives of crossword fanatics for the rest of us to see. The film follows its subjects all the way up to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a yearly event that individuals from all walks of life gather to participate in. Seeing people not much older than myself perfecting the art of solving a crossword puzzle is what sparked my interest in them. 

It was first “The New York Times’”  miniature crosswords that took my notice. A free 5×5 crossword puzzle conveniently available on my phone, I was instantly hooked on this sweet and short challenge that was presented to me at 10 p.m., as if it were a reward for completing the day. I quickly found myself obsessing over my time, attempting to shrink it each day. It was not long after I got it under one minute that I was itching to half that. After I could finish one in 30 seconds, I fought to bring my time down to the 20s. At last, once I reached this mark, I did what once seemed impossible to me: I brought my time down below 20 seconds. No matter how good or bad of a day I was having, no matter how triumphant or defeated I felt at 9:59 p.m., I had this small achievement to be proud of at the end of every day. 

Although this initially was just a fun competition that I had created with myself, I slowly began to notice differences in the ways I read and wrote. I found myself typing in “synonyms for …” into Google far less often than I had before when writing papers. Reading homework flew by much quicker. I saw that the random bits and pieces of fact that I collected from each clue were slowly coming together and that I suddenly had well-rounded knowledge of subjects I had never studied before. Though a simple game that took up less than a minute of my time, I began to see the positive impacts it had on me. 

My crossword puzzle vessel expanded from the minis of “The New York Times” to include the more lighthearted but larger 15×15 puzzles of “Crosswords with Friends.” Like the minis, I found myself learning about all sorts of new things from movies I had never seen to sports I had never played. Once I got these puzzles down to under three minutes, which took an entire year of practice, I decided to head to the grand, 15×15 “The New York Times” puzzles. While these are a much more challenging work in progress, I find myself continuing to grow in logic, knowledge and literary skills. 

Crossword puzzles, though a small part of my day, have given me something positive to look forward to for years now. They have been there as a feel-good activity through days of failed tests, quarantine blues and difficult work shifts. Even more so, they have cultivated my love for language and knowledge which has spread to other areas of my life since. 

If you have a spare moment this Reading Period, give the documentary a watch and try a puzzle or two. You might just find yourself with a 10 p.m. EST alarm on your phone.