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Will Shortz: Aging Gopher Maracas

Mar 7, 2013
Originally published on January 2, 2014 2:47 pm

Ever heard of "enigmatology"? It's the study of puzzles, and there's currently only one person who holds a degree in it — Will Shortz. The ultimate puzzle guru visits Ask Me Another as this week's Mystery Guest to discuss his all-time favorite crossword clues and exceptional love of table tennis. Host Ophira Eisenberg discovers that Shortz owns a crossword puzzle suit, which we hope to see him wear outside his home one day.

Since Shortz is a puzzle legend, we felt wrong about pitting him against a contestant of the civilian sort. So for Shortz' Ask Me Another Challenge, we call upon our own puzzle guru, John Chaneski, to step up to the mat for a game called "Aging Gopher Maracas" — otherwise known as "Geographic Anagrams." The competition heats up as the puzzle grasshopper takes on his puzzle master, but all bets are off in this word-twisting trivia match.

About Will Shortz

Will Shortz has been the puzzle master for NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday since the program's start in 1987. He's also the crossword editor of The New York Times, the former editor of Games magazine, and the founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (since 1978).

Shortz sold his first puzzle professionally when he was 14 — to Venture, a denominational youth magazine. At 16 he became a regular contributor to Dell puzzle publications. He is the only person in the world to hold a college degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles, which he earned from Indiana University in 1974.

Born in 1952 and raised on an Arabian horse farm in Indiana, Shortz now lives near New York City in a Tudor-style house filled with books and Arts and Crafts furniture. When he's not at work, he enjoys bicycling, movies, reading, travel, and collecting antique puzzle books and magazines.

Watch a clip of Shortz talking about his other love — ping pong — below.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


When it comes to legitimizing yourself as a public radio quiz show, well, there's only really one day to do that and that is to the get New York Times crossword editor and NPR's puzzle master Will Shortz on your show.



WILL SHORTZ: 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.

SHORTZ: Right.

EISENBERG: And you have - you make - why do you make Saturday the hardest?

SHORTZ: Why is Saturday the hardest?


Monday is a hard day. Just do it on Monday. Saturday, people want to relax.

SHORTZ: Uh-huh.

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 difficult 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 predecessor, 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.


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: Aou 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.