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University News

Six undergrads to puzzle Times readers this week

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010

Six Brown undergrads wrote puzzles for the New York Times’ first-ever week of crosswords from one school.

Crossword devotees are often stereotyped to be nostalgic retirees who avidly pen in answers to puzzles as they sip coffee at the breakfast table. But six Brown students are rejuvenating the brainteasers by designing consecutive New York Times’ puzzles for Brown Puzzlemaker Week — the first time a specific university’s students have been given the reins of the paper’s celebrated puzzles.

Creations by Aimee Lucido ’13, Eshan Mitra ’12, Zoe Wheeler ’12, Joey Weissbrot ’11, Jonah Kagan ’13 and Natan Last ’12, listed in order of publication, will be published starting Monday.

Last, who designed his first crossword in 10th grade biology class and co-founded the Brown Puzzling Association, pitched the idea of the special week to the Times’ crossword editor Will Shortz, for whom he interned this summer. “He said it was just a matter of finding six people who can do it,” Last said.

With roughly 30 members in the student group, Last said it was not difficult to find five other enthusiastic constructors. The association meets weekly to construct, discuss and solve puzzles and annually organizes a campus crossword tournament. Kagan and Last also construct special weekly puzzles, titled “Across to Bear,” for The Herald.

“I think it’s remarkable that there are so many Brown students who construct puzzles,” said Shortz, who attended this spring’s tournament. “The quality of the puzzles is just as high as in any other week, and I wouldn’t have published them otherwise.”

The six approach the craft of crossword making with different backgrounds. Lucido is concentrating in computer science and Monday’s puzzle is the first she has ever constructed, while Weissbrot is studying classics and used to spend his middle school lunch breaks solving crosswords.

But all concur that creating puzzles requires a love for language, a mathematical mind and a passion for quirky trivia. They also relish creating fresher clues — with topics ranging from “Harry Potter” to “The Simpsons” — for a hobby that has long been dominated by old-fashioned references.

“Constructing is a great way to get back at the crossword world for all those years,” said Kagan.

Shortz also organized a Teen Puzzlemaker Week in 2008 and a Half-Century Puzzlemakers’ Week in 2009. On average, he said he edits about half of all clues in any one puzzle to be published — but tweaked a lower percentage of the student-penned clues, he added.

The clues are the final — but most fun — part of the creation process for Last, who creates the puzzles via a computer program.

First, he picks a theme, thinks up answers and types them in a grid. Then he blacks out the squares at the end of words, fiddles with the construction and ultimately writes out the clues.

“You try to have the least number of awkward letters crossing,” said Last, who added that he has always been passionate about fitting objects together. “I used to make mazes all the time. My favorite thing as a kid was Legos.”

In contrast, Lucido’s history with puzzles is far more recent. While she used to peek over her mother’s shoulder when she completed the Times’ Sunday crossword, she said she did not delve into crossword creation until late last semester.

“I had a week between two finals so I spent a day making it,” said Lucido of the puzzle, where the word “Brown” is prominently featured. “We were attempting to study for philosophy … but that just developed into writing clues. I realized it was way cooler to work on a puzzle for the New York Times.”

She and Mitra will be published for the first time this week, while the other three have already had their creations printed in the Times.

“I want to continue to publish teens and young constructors,” Shortz said. “I’m expecting people to think that, A, this week is cool and, B, these are really nice puzzles.”

 

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