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From the Magazine: Puzzling Future

Sharpen Your Pencils

Try your hand at "Hens," the crossword puzzle that Xan Vongsathorn '09 crafted especially for Pomona College Magazine:

Xan Vongsathorn ’09 discovered crossword puzzles in a way typical of the past century: He saw someone else doing them in a newspaper and picked one up to try it himself.

Now 23 and a grad student at the University of Chicago, Vongsathorn has gone from avid crossword puzzle solver to puzzle maker. Two puzzles he created have been published in the Carnegie Hall of crosswords, The New York Times, and “two or three more have been accepted to run at a later date.” Crossword-doers consider The New York Times puzzles the best, held in such high regard that the paper is able to charge for them online, land of the mostly free content.

Things are not so rosy at other newspapers where staffs, advertising and space in the paper are shrinking, and the industry is holding on for dear life, hoping a profitable presence in the online world comes before the last edition rolls off the presses. With or without newspapers, crosswords are making the transition to online, and that raises a question: Will future Xan Vongsathorns find them there?

Since Dec. 21, 1913, when Arthur Wynne placed a crossword in the Sunday edition of the New York World, the puzzles have attracted new converts like Vongsathorn who happened across them in printed form. Internet searches are more directed to specific interests—you don’t happen across a crossword on the Google news page, although if you search for “crossword” you can come up with a lifetime supply in seconds.

Even though he came to crosswords through print, Vongsathorn thinks other young people are finding crosswords on the Internet.

“There’s never been a better time to get interested,” says Vongsathorn, who became thoroughly hooked on crosswords after coming across the free copies of The New York Times provided on Pomona’s campus.

“Crosswords used to be a solitary activity, but now there are blogs, competitions, you can do the puzzle and then go online to check what others have done. The New York Times has an applet that lets you time how long it takes you to do the puzzle and then compares it to others.

“It certainly opens up opportunities that weren’t there before, and it strikes me as a lot more fun this way. Now there is a crossword community.”

Michael Sharp ’91 is a big part of that community with his blog, Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword, where he not only solves the daily puzzle but rates its difficulty, says what he likes or dislikes about the puzzle and expounds on the answers.

Sharp’s first memory of doing a crossword is finishing a Sunday puzzle with three friends in the Coop at Pomona. Now his crossword blog attracts about 20,000 visitors a day. “I’ve amassed a huge following based largely on initial visits to my site via ‘cheating,’” says Sharp, referring to puzzle solvers searching for answers.

As far as crossword puzzles are concerned, Sharp thinks “online” is a deceptive term. Not all online puzzles are solved there. Some people download puzzles to their desktop and solve them in special software. Others print out the puzzles and solve them on paper. (Sharp downloads them and either works them on his desktop or prints them out and solves them on paper.)

While Sharp doesn’t claim to know what will happen with “this great online migration,” he says the mere presence of the puzzle in people’s newspapers—the visible grid, there, every day, next to the funnies—has had a lot to do with its enduring popularity.

“This may sound absurd, but how will people know what a crossword is if they don’t see it every day, if they don’t see family doing it, don’t find it lying around? You can move the puzzle online, but that’s not a forum where people will casually bump into and decide to solve the puzzle,” says Sharp, a professor at Binghamton State University of New York, who teaches courses in medieval and Renaissance literature, crime fiction and comics.

“For several generations, the puzzle has just ‘been there,’” Sharp says, something that puzzle producers in the future can’t take for granted. “A click away may as well be a million miles away for those not already interested in the form.”

Lynne Zold ’67 has been the puzzles editor for Pomona College Magazine (see page 64) for almost a decade, and she has a warning to any publisher that thinks the puzzles can go online only: The Stoop Group will fight back.

The Stoop Group is a collection of a dozen 60-some things who gather every Saturday night at 5 o’clock on Lummi Island in Washington State to trade books and solve puzzles.

“They will fight to find them in print,” says Zold. “They say, ‘You’ll have to pry this novel from my cold, dead hands, and that goes for puzzles, too.’”

She thinks the attraction is a tactile thing, that sitting in front of a screen will never be as comfortable as curling up next to a fire with your coffee and puzzle. “Of course, we didn’t grow up in front of a screen, but my 30-year-old daughter hates doing puzzles online, too.”

Zold, who recently retired from her psychology practice in Bellingham, Wash., thinks that doing puzzles online is too mechanical what with “moving the mouse around and all those clicks.”

Pomona’s future in the puzzle-creation world tends to agree.

Joel Fagliano ’14, an incoming freshman from Philadelphia, has already had two of his puzzles published in The New York Times—the first when he was 17—and two in the Los Angeles Times. He finds doing a puzzle online annoying “to have to move around the cursor to see all the clues.”

The advantage to puzzles online is more variety, he says. For instance, there are puzzles made of rock band names and others that employ racy words not found in newspaper puzzles.

Fagliano became interested in crosswords by watching his dad work the NYT puzzle. He started doing the L.A. Times puzzle in the Philadelphia Inquirer when he was in the eighth grade, working on it while on the train to school.

He soon graduated to The New York Times puzzle, and by the 10th grade, he started cutting it out of the paper and taking it on the train with him, a sure source of trouble when there is more than one puzzle doer in a household. The missing puzzle forced his dad to subscribe to the NYT crossword online.