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Wordplay

Movies | Film on crossword puzzles offers clues about enthusiasts

Issue: "Unto the breach," July 22, 2006

Move the letter "d" to the end of the first word in "Dunkin Donuts" and you get "unkind donuts." Flip an "h" and an "s" in the phrase "Noah's ark" and you get "No, a shark." Crossword puzzle constructor Merle Reagle confesses that this is how crossword devotees think in Wordplay, a documentary about puzzle enthusiasts.

But enthusiastic isn't strong enough to describe the film's puzzle gurus who converge in Stamford, Conn., to compete in the 28th annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament. These are people who can blaze through a New York Times puzzle in less than five minutes and impress even Will Shortz, the Times' crossword editor since 1993.

We learn about Shortz's lifelong obsession with crosswords that led him to design his own major at Indiana University in "enigmatology," the study of puzzles. Shortz presides over the annual tournament, and the film follows a close band of top competitors aching to be champion.

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Along the way we learn that musicians and mathematicians are best suited for solving puzzles: They have a knack for assimilating coded information. Puzzle makers reveal the mind-boggling process of constructing crosswords, and celebrities like comedian Jon Stewart and New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina reveal their puzzle addictions.

The film also dishes up a few political moments: More than once we're reminded that The New York Times and National Public Radio are the "two greatest news organizations in the country." In profiles of finalists we learn about a gay contestant's live-in boyfriend. And a philosophical Bill Clinton compares solving puzzles to solving presidential problems.

Still, the final competition scene is a surprising nail biter and the three finalists eventually reveal their true aims: One wants to prove something to the world, and the other two want to prove something to themselves. But puzzle maker Reagle may best capture why people love crosswords: "It feeds the basic human need to figure things out."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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