With his encyclopedic brain, creativity and subtle sense of humor, Will Shortz might be the ultimate super nerd. But his many fans consider the world's foremost puzzle man, or "enigmatist," well, sexy.
"It's actually an easy field to get into. You just start making puzzles and send them in to publications," said Shortz in a telephone interview. The Indiana native first published a puzzle at age 14. Now, he has achieved the puzzle-writer's dream as editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle page and creator of hundreds of word and number puzzles of many kinds. He is also a contributor to National Public Radio (he gives puzzles over the air for people to solve on the fly).
Lest anyone think puzzle-making itself is easy, Shortz points out that not just anyone can do it: "It takes an enormous amount of skill and knowledge and work to make a puzzle," said Shortz, who designed his own degree in "enigmatology" at Indiana University and went to law school but pursued his puzzle career rather than try the bar. He now oversees publication of crossword puzzles by about 110 people in his duties at the Times, but works mostly at home in Pleasantville, N.Y.
Language or math puzzle makers are few, partly because of the difficulty, partly because of low pay and partly because not too many people are temperamentally suited to such an endeavor.
Shortz, who will speak this weekend at the Salt Lake City Main Library, is the quintessential example of that kind of genius.
"He's the best. I love that guy," said Salt Lake City puzzle aficionado Debra Sandack, who appreciates the cleverness and humor of a Shortz puzzle.
Other puzzling minds agree. Shortz's dozens of puzzle compilations are best-sellers in the genre. A recent Web site poll named the still single Shortz the top "hottie" at the Times in the "Love Him for His Brain" category.
Relaxing with a copy of the Sunday Times and a cup of coffee helps keep Sandack sane and provides a respite from full-time motherhood. She compares completing a puzzle to doing laundry in a world where nothing really ever gets done: "You start out with a big mess and end up with a little pile," she said. "It's a sense of a tidy little accomplishment when the rest of your day is chaos.
"This is really what makes people happy, these little joyous moments during the day," Sandack said. "It isn't huge accomplishments like getting your Ph.D. that make you happy. It's little things like getting the crossword puzzle done."
Zealous puzzle solvers meet every March in Stamford, Conn., to compete in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, founded and organized by Shortz. "They come to test themselves . . . and they just like to be with other crossword people. Crossword people are well-read, funny, they travel a lot and have flexible minds," Shortz said. Puzzlers can also do the competition puzzles online to see how they stack up against the competitors in timed contests.
Shortz is best known for word puzzles, but he also dabbles in other types, including Sodoku, the Japanese number-puzzle sensation that has swept Europe and is now gaining popularity in America.
Most of the time, he tries to walk a sometimes-fine balance between being funny and clever and offending people. He doesn't include politically charged items in his puzzles, for example. But "I'm not prudish. If there's something colorful or lively, sometimes I'll let it slip in."
A puzzle generally starts out with the grid and the clues come last, Shortz said. Every puzzle goes through a rigorous editing and testing process, but mistakes do sometimes get through - and he hears about them.
Recently, for example, a puzzle mixed up "Acheson," as in the former U.S. secretary of State, and "Atchison," as in the town in Kansas and the train line named after it.
"There are not many and they tend to be small, but every once in a while there's a whopper that somehow got missed," he said. On another occasion, the answer was "Rupp Arena" and the clue was "Louisville Landmark."
"I thought I had checked this, and I did check it," he said, by looking briefly at the Google search engine results. "What I didn't look at close enough is that the University of Kentucky's arena is in Knoxville, not Louisville."
Even though he's fairly obsessive about getting things right, mistakes are bound to happen. "I'm a taskmaster at puzzles. That's how people envision me. They also envision me as a super genius who knows everything." He insists he's not quite up to that level, though he admits he would rather leave a puzzle unsolved than look up the answers.
* Will Shortz will speak Saturday at 7:30 p.m., at the Salt Lake City Library's Main Branch, 210 E. 400 South. A few free tickets, as well as $50 tickets for a reception before the event, are available at the library. Overflow seating and a few wait-list seats will be available on Saturday. Call 524-8200 for information.