According to puzzle editor Art Chung, some games on Ask Me Another are hard because they're created with only one person in mind who can play them: our V.I.P., or Very Important Puzzler. In this segment, host Ophira Eisenberg and guest musician Julian Velard present a game about quirky chess players written specifically for Grandmaster Maurice Ashley called "Two and a Half Chessmen." Then, find out Will Shortz' favorite crossword clue of all time, and play along with a diabolical final round game of his own devising, an anagram game titled "Five By Five."
This segment originally aired on August 30, 2013.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
You're listening to NRP and WNYC's hour of puzzles, word games, and trivia - ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm your host Ophira Eisenberg, and joining me for our Really Hard Edition is our puzzle editor Art Chung. One of your jobs as our puzzle editor, Art Chung, is when we have our VIPs on - our Very Important Puzzlers - you have to devise a game that is tailored just for them.
ART CHUNG: That's right.
EISENBERG: So what are some of the things that you think about when creating these games?
CHUNG: Well, sometimes we ask them if they have some quirky interest or hobby thats obscure that, you know, we didn't know about. Like they fly fishing.
CHUNG: And that worked out really well.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
EISENBERG: Dan Kennedy, everybody.
EISENBERG: Of the many things you gave us to base your quiz on, we were most intrigued about your claim to know about salmon and fresh water bass and the terrestrial and aquatic insects that trout eat to survive. So we tried to write a quiz, of course, that made fresh water bass and trout interesting. Turns out, that isn't possible.
EISENBERG: We couldn't do it. So your quiz is titled Questions Not Really About Fish.
DAN KENNEDY: Yes. Yes.
CHUNG: Sometimes they have a very specific profession, and we can write a really difficult quiz that they can answer, but no one else can.
EISENBERG: So it's basically a one-person game. They are the only person on Earth who can do this puzzle.
CHUNG: For example, when we had chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley on the show, we asked him about a very obscure chess masterS from the 1900s.
EISENBERG: Yes. Which we also found out they all are insane.
CHUNG: I wouldn't say insane. They all were a little focused.
EISENBERG: You're very nice. Puzzle editors are very nice that way. In this next game too is our guest musician Julian Velard.
EISENBERG: Hello, Julian.
JULIAN VELARD: Hello, Ophira. I like this guy.
VELARD: Yeah, I want to take him.
EISENBERG: No, he's cool. He's cool.
VELARD: So let's take him down.
EISENBERG: He's a killer.
MAURICE ASHLEY: I like you too, man.
VELARD: All right, all right, leave it for after. Let's listen.
EISENBERG: Now, Maurice, chess players are often seen as these incredible geniuses with the processing power of a computer and the creativity of an artist. But they're only human, right? Many stories of the greatest chess players in history revolve around their more human quirks.
So in this game, we're going to explore the lighter side of chess history. Today, you're going to be playing for Christopher Vehon from Phoenix, Arizona. So here's how it works. If you get three questions right, you and Christopher win a prize.
EISENBERG: All right, let's see how you do.
ASHLEY: How many questions do I get?
ASHLEY: Nineteen, good.
EISENBERG: No, no, no.
ASHLEY: Whew, I needed that. Good.
ASHLEY: What kind of game?
EISENBERG: Let's see what goes on here.
ASHLEY: All right.
EISENBERG: Emanuel Lasker, do you know him?
ASHLEY: We've played once or twice.
EISENBERG: OK. So he's not only a chess champion but a world class bridge player and mathematician, who was good friends with Albert Einstein. But he wasn't an Einstein at everything. At one point, he became interested in breeding championship pigeons for the Berlin Poultry Show. After months of failing to get his pigeons to mate, he realized his fairly obvious mistake. What happened, Maurice?
ASHLEY: He was breeding roosters?
EISENBERG: I think that's a good idea that he didn't even know they were pigeons.
ASHLEY: The hell? Emanuel - by the way, I didn't play him once or twice since he's been dead for over 60 years.
EISENBERG: No, I know, obviously, if he was friends with Einstein. Yeah, he bought a bunch of - no, he definitely was sure they were pigeons. And he bought all these pigeons. He clearly didn't check one important thing. And then he put them all together and he was like, oh, they're going to breed, and something happened.
ASHLEY: Well, like I said, the rooster thing, they were probably the same gender.
EISENBERG: You are correct. They were all male, exactly.
EISENBERG: I see what you're doing there. That was very smart. Written in the 1980s during the height of the Cold War, the musical "Chess" features a bad boy American, a defecting Russian, a love triangle and spies. The same plot as "White Knights," by the way.
In the musical's most famous song, the main character extols the seedy virtues of the Asian city hosting the world chess championship. Julian, let's have a little of that song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK")
VELARD: (Singing) Something, something and the world's your oyster. The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free. You'll find a god in every golden cloister, and if you're lucky, then the god's a she. I can feel an angel sliding up to me.
ASHLEY: I should know this song.
EISENBERG: Maurice, do you know this song?
ASHLEY: I know the song, except I don't know the city.
ASHLEY: But I want to say - no - I want to say Bangkok.
EISENBERG: You want to say right, "One Night in Bangkok." The best song from that musical.
ASHLEY: Yeah, you know, no chess player went to see that musical.
EISENBERG: What do you mean no chess players went to the see the musical "Chess"? It was a hit. One of the greatest champions of the 1920s and 30s, this grandmaster was born in Riga, then part of the Russian empire. He was known for his many eccentricities, including wearing bed clothes to tournaments and insisting in restaurants that he was intentionally being served portions that were smaller than everybody else's. The answer is not my dad.
EISENBERG: Who was he?
ASHLEY: The first answer that popped in my head, but I can't believe you guys would choose this guy, but I'm just going to say because it's the first one. I have another answer. I'm trying to pick between two.
ASHLEY: So I'm going to say Bogoljubov.
ASHLEY: I really meant to say...
EISENBERG: Who was the other one you were thinking of?
EISENBERG: Ah! Nimzowitsch is correct.
ASHLEY: That's right.
EISENBERG: Nailed it. At a 1925 tournament, Aron Nimzowitsch found himself losing a match to Friedrich Saemisch. Incensed, he stood up on the table and shouted what phrase that I'm sure you have thought to yourself from time to time.
ASHLEY: I have no idea. I resign.
EISENBERG: You resign on that one. You know what, I'm not sure but I would love to do this. Anyone out there?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Cheater.
EISENBERG: Wrong. All right, cheater. I like that. They're a cheater.
ASHLEY: I'd be really upset if somebody else got the answer.
EISENBERG: He said, just why must I lose to this idiot?
ASHLEY: Yeah, yeah, I've heard that many times.
EISENBERG: Has that ever rolled through your head at all?
ASHLEY: It ain't just Nimzowitsch. I've heard that many times.
EISENBERG: With the exception of why must I lose to this idiot, which I know you are just too nice to ever think, you got them all right. So...
ASHLEY: I'm going to practice that one, though.
EISENBERG: So not only do you get a prize, but also Christopher Vehon, congratulations, you have won. You've both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes, your very own to have. Well done.
ASHLEY: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much, Maurice Ashley.
ASHLEY: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Julian, what are you going to play for us?
VELARD: I'm going to play a song that I think is what Maurice is going to do after this game. He's going to take the money and run. Take his Rubik's Cube and run. That's the name of the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN")
VELARD: (Singing) I didn't used to be this way. I was a good kid back in the day. Safe to say things have changed. Yeah, I remember when I brushed my teeth every night. I held my pretty little girlfriend tight. I never let the bedbugs bite. But that was so long ago, and now I've lived long enough to know. You take the money and run. Don't wait till the deal is done. Well, I'm telling you son, take the money and run. Step out the back, shoot like a bullet from a gun. Boy, don't be dumb. You take the mo-mo-mo-money and run.
EISENBERG: Julian Velard.
VELARD: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: Are you the one writing us emails about how easy our games are? Well, then we want to meet you. To be a contestant on a future show, reach out to us on Twitter or Facebook at npraskmeanother or send us an old fashioned email at email@example.com. In exchange, we'll send you a little quiz and see if you've got what it takes to make it to our ASK ME ONE MORE final round.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: When it comes to legitimizing yourself as a public radio quiz show, well, there’s only really one way to do that. And that is to get The New York Times crossword editor and NPR’s puzzle master Will Shortz on your show.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
WILL SHORTZ, BYLINE: Thank you, Ophira.
EISENBERG: So Will, you've been described by your fans as the nation's master of linguistic play. And I've been told that you have this degree in enigmatology.
SHORTZ: That's right.
EISENBERG: Which is a made-up degree, and I think it's your way of saying that you skipped classes and wrote puzzles in your dorm room for four years. Is that correct?
SHORTZ: I have a degree in enigmatology, yeah, the study of puzzles.
EISENBERG: But you actually have a framed diploma that says this?
SHORTZ: Yes, I do. Yeah. My thesis was on the history of American word puzzles before 1860 and...
EISENBERG: Oh, just - just that one puzzle that you had to write about?
EISENBERG: What - what - what...
SHORTZ: Actually, I found puzzles go all the way back in the United States to 1647, in one of the earliest publications in the colonies. And this was in the Massachusetts Bay colony. And even in a culture like that, puzzles struck a chord in humans. It was so important to them that they were making puzzles that far back.
EISENBERG: Oh, that's amazing. So you were carrying on the tradition of striking chords in people, as they have you in their paper every day.
EISENBERG: And you have - you make - why do you make Saturday the hardest?
SHORTZ: Why is Saturday the hardest?
EISENBERG: Why? Monday is a hard day. Just do it on Monday. Saturday, people want to relax.
EISENBERG: Feel good about themselves.
SHORTZ: I don't know about your weekends but, you know, maybe you've been partying too much and your mind's a little mushy? You know, it's kind of nice to ease into the week with an easy puzzle.
SHORTZ: And, as the week goes on, then the difficulty increases. Saturday is a day you - most people don't have to go to work so you have a little extra time. It's a - one of my predecessors, Margaret Farrar called it a two cups of coffee puzzle. That's why Saturday is hard.
EISENBERG: It's a two cup, I like that.
EISENBERG: And when you're writing these and editing the puzzles, do you have a specific audience in mind? Do you think of an age group or someone that's sharing a certain kind of cultural references level of...
SHORTZ: Yeah, actually, I'm trying to edit for everybody so - and it's a very diverse audience. You know, things that an 18-year-old knows is different from what a 40-year-old knows, which is different from what a 70-year-old knows so I have to try to put everything in the puzzle and hope that part of it is just for you.
EISENBERG: Is there one clue or answer recently that you were particularly proud of? That you were like ha-ha?
SHORTZ: Well, I think that all the time actually, yeah.
EISENBERG: I picture you doing that all the time, by the way. Yeah.
SHORTZ: Yeah. The one that jumps to mind, and it's old - an oldie, the answer was spiral staircase. My clue was it may turn into a different story.
(SOUNDBITE OF GROANS)
EISENBERG: That is pretty amazing. I'm going to give it to you. That is, yeah, check mark says Ophira Eisenberg. Now, in addition to all the puzzles and KenKen and crosswords, you also are a huge table tennis nut, right? And you just opened up a ping pong parlor in Pleasantville? Oh, I was dying to say that.
SHORTZ: You love alliteration. Yeah, I live in Westchester County, New York, just north of New York City. I've opened the Westchester Table Tennis Center. It is the largest table tennis facility in the country. We've got players from China, Europe, the Caribbean, all across the United States. And I have played over 100 consecutive days now since I...
EISENBERG: So when you're playing, do you feel like, you know, because you have patrons there, obviously, that are coming and paying - I - to play...
SHORTZ: Right, right.
EISENBERG: ...Ping pong...
EISENBERG: ...Do you sometimes have to let them win and stuff like that to make sure they...
SHORTZ: I never let anyone win.
CHUNG: So when we asked Will back on the show to be our puzzle guru, he said he'd only do it if he could write the Ask Me One More final round game.
EISENBERG: And he wrote one of the most challenging ones, because what did he write about? Anagrams.
CHUNG: That's right. Anagrams, if you don't know, are when you take one word and change all the letters to make another word. Like nudity and untidy.
EISENBERG: My brain does not think this way. I can't do it.
CHUNG: A lot of people's brains don't. But some people can really move the letters around in their head and form these new works. And the real tricky thing about this game is that we don't give them pen and paper. They're doing it all onstage in their heads in real time.
EISENBERG: And that's why we call it diabolical, or my name isn't Her ripe begonias.
SHORTZ: This final round is called Five by Five. I'm going to give you two five-letter words. Your challenge is to rearrange the letters of the first word to get a synonym of the other. For example, if I gave you strut - S-T-R-U-T - and faith, you would say trust, which is an anagram of strut and is a synonym of faith. Now we're going to play this spelling-bee style. So one wrong answer and you're out.
You'll have only a few seconds to give us an answer. Last person standing is our grand winner. Remember, rearrange the letters of the first word to get a synonym of the second one. Here we go. Kurt, you're up. Binge B-I-N-G-E to mean start.
KURT ANDERSON: Begin.
SHORTZ: Begin is correct. Sam, fiber - F-I-B-E-R - to mean short. F-I-B-E-R to mean short. OK, time's up. Thank you, Sam. Cassidy, do you know fiber to mean short? F-I-B-E-R to mean short. OK, times up. Thank you, Sam. Cassidy, do you know fiber to mean short?
CASSIDY BROWN: No.
SHORTZ: OK. Sorry, Cassidy. Oh, David is in the hot spot. Fiber that means short.
DAVID WAIN: Brief.
SHORTZ: Brief is it. Yes.
SHORTZ: We're down to three contestants. Brian. Trams - T-R-A-M-S - to mean sting.
BRIAN GILLIS: Smarts?
SHORTZ: Smart is it, yes. Kurt, lamed - L-A-M-E-D - to mean award.
SHORTZ: Medal is it. And David, uboat - U-B-O-A-T - to mean circa.
WAIN: About. About.
SHORTZ: About is it. Yes. OK.
SHORTZ: Well, you guys are so good we're going to make things a little more challenging. Now I'm not going to tell you which word is the anagram and which is the synonym. That's for you to figure out.
Brian, this is your first one of these. Scope S-C-O-P-E and anger A-N-G-E-R. Scope and anger.
GILLIS: Gear? G--oh, sorry.
SHORTZ: Scope and anger. No, I don't hear the answer. OK. Kurt. Scope and anger.
SHORTZ: Range is it.
SHORTZ: OK. So we're down to two contestants. David, your clues are cruel - C-R-U-E-L - and money - M-O-N-E-Y.
WAIN: OK. Ready? C-R-U...
SHORTZ: I think his time is up.
SHORTZ: Yeah. Kurt, do you know cruel and money?
SHORTZ: Lucre. Our champion.
EISENBERG: Well done. Kurt Andersen, you are our ASK ME ANOTHER big winner. Now, that was the final round. Will Shortz, everybody.
EISENBERG: Well, we've run out of Really Hard games. No, that's not true but that's all the time we have for our Really Hard Edition. I hope you enjoyed your workout. You can join us for a game any time, any place by subscribing to our podcast on iTunes. Or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.