Minnesota crossword puzzle-makers think inside the box

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 16, 2013 - 10:08 AM

A 10-letter phrase for the home of a large, very successful community of crossword puzzlemakers? Twin Cities.

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George Barany shows a book including the first crossword puzzle, created in 1913, and a display of his first New York Times puzzle.

Photo: MARLIN LEVISON • mlevison@startribune.com,

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George Barany was driving to his office Monday morning when he heard on the radio that Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa had been elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.

“Wow!” he said. “That’s great.”

Barany wasn’t thinking about the three veteran managers’ impressive careers; he was thinking about the number of letters in their names. Joe Torre and Bobby Cox each have eight, not counting the space. Tony LaRussa and the phrase Hall of Famer both have 11.

“There’s a crossword puzzle there,” he announced.

He had two of the most important aspects of a good crossword puzzle: a theme and symmetry. All he needed was another 74 words, a set of 78 “clever but not obscure" clues and a title that hinted at the theme but didn’t give it away. It could take him hours to come up with all of that, but he was confident that it would be hours of enjoyment.

A University of Minnesota chemistry professor by day, Barany is the ringleader — “by default; I have the best mailing list” — of a cadre of local crossword puzzle constructors. It’s such a large and active community that when New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz was in the Twin Cities in September, he interrupted his presentation to pay them homage.

“There’s a lot of crosswording going on here,” Shortz said.

Barany oversees a website (http://tinyurl.com/gbpuzzle) that includes more than 150 locally created puzzles. They’ve appeared everywhere from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to Games magazine and Minnesota magazine, a publication of the university’s Alumni Association. Most of them are general-audience puzzles, but there also are narrow-focus offerings, including one created for the biennial symposium of the American Peptide Society (the answers feature amino acids) and another for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (famous legal cases).

Victor Barocas, a professor in the university’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and a frequent contributor of puzzles to the Los Angeles Times, said that the concentration of colleges in the Twin Cities is one of the reasons so many puzzles come out of the area.

“We have a very strong crossword community because we have a very strong intellectual community,” he said. “Plus, the state has a history of strong education that is going to produce a community like this.”

Jan Morse, the director of student conflict resolution at the university who tests many of the puzzles before they are submitted for publication, said that Barany is another reason that the community is so big.

“If you run into George and mention crossword puzzles, he’ll recruit you for his group,” she said.

100 years strong

The crossword is about to celebrate its centennial. Arthur Wynne, an editor at the New York World newspaper, came up with the idea for the first one. Published on Dec. 21, 1913, it was laid out in a diamond pattern and was called a Word-Cross. The majority of it consisted of three- and four-letter words with equally basic clues, including “The plural of is” and “Opposed to less.”

The modern puzzle puts a premium on sophistication. While there are simple puzzles, often published in books sold in airport newsstands, the goal of most constructors is to include clever wordplay in both the clues and answers.

“It’s more fun to construct and more fun to solve,” said Barocas, who recently had a puzzle published in the Chronicle of Higher Education into which he embedded Latin phrases in rebus elements (two or more letters in the same square). For instance, the answer “income tax return” included “et tu.”

How long did it take to him to create that puzzle? “Oh, forever,” he said with a chuckle.

Creating puzzles is not a get-rich-quick proposition, Shortz warned. The top rate for a daily puzzle is $200, “which is not much when you consider the time, skill and expertise involved.”

Barany agreed. “It’s probably one of the lowest-paying jobs you could find” on a hourly basis, he said. “It’s strictly a labor of love.”

The odds against getting a puzzle published are stiff, too, with major publications getting 10 times as many submissions as they can use. “There are a lot of smart people out there with a lot of good ideas,” Barany said.

The puzzlemakers need a working knowledge of a vast array of subjects, from clothing to cooking, from classic literature to pop culture.

“I like that they involve both language and trivia,” Barocas said, adding that he was stuck on a puzzle until someone mentioned TV self-help guru Dr. Oz. “I had to look him up because I’d never heard of him.” Barany added: “My Achilles heel is rap singers.”

There’s one other occupational hazard: Trying to get the puzzle you’re working on out of your mind when you should be focusing on something else, Barany said.

“My kids are older now, but when they were young, I’d sit at their baseball games going through words in my head, counting the letters,” he said.

 

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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