Admit it: You work crossword puzzles four, five, maybe even seven days a week, and you're worried you're not getting any smarter. Sure, you've learned that 'bread spreadâ?� is 'oleoâ?� as surely as you know your own name. But 'Fulda feederâ?�? You've probably seen that one 1,001 times, and still you can never remember what the answer is. Are you exhibiting subconscious rebellion? Self-sabotage? Or a learning curve as flat as a pancake? Puzzle expert Merl Reagle says you shouldn't sweat it too badly.
'There's two kinds of solvers in America,â?� says Reagle. 'People who solve crosswords as a test, and people who solve crosswords as a game. We're all the game people, and we think they're a lot more fun.â?�
By 'we,â?� he means the subculture of furious scribblers profiled in the film Wordplay, a document not only of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament but of the hobby in toto. Reagle, who appears in the film as a tournament judge and breezily witty talking head, is also a Tampa-based puzzle constructor who's represented regularly in top publications like the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He says that the misperception of crosswords as a purely vocabulary-building activity is a byproduct of years of stodginess on the part of editors who failed to recognize how fun the activity could and should be.
'What we've been trying to do for the last 25, 30 years is make crossword puzzles more like Jeopardy,â?� he says of the Games magazine contingent that's gradually imprinted its personality on the nation's dailies. 'We were doing anagrams ' really funny ones ' or interesting palindromes or spoonerisms or all this wordplay stuff that's been famous throughout the last 50, hundred years. But newspapers didn't have it.â?�
If you loved Spellbound and Word Wars, you're in the viewership demo for Wordplay, a highlight of the 2006 Florida Film Festival and yet another doc in which lovable brainiacs compete head-to-head. We learn the mild quirks of the featured competitors in the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, as they converge on a Connecticut hotel to fill in little squares as fast as their pencils will allow. But on a larger scale, the movie honors a hobby that enlivens the daily routines of countless Americans. Their guru is Will Shortz, editor of the prestigious New York Times puzzle and founder of the 17'year-old tournament; dancing to his etymological tune is a nation of hard-core puzzle junkies, including celebrities like Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton (who appear in amusing, enlightening interviews).
While lacking the socioeconomic significance of Spellbound (the key players in the climactic tournament are overwhelmingly white and comfortable-seeming), Wordplay is a rousing endorsement of the principles of fair play and communication. Without overworking the idea, director Patrick Creadon suggests that crosswords are an important tool of human connection ' as evidenced by a montage of tournament players hugging and serenading each other in between rounds. They're not just playing games; they're making sense of the world, one pleasantly intimidating grid at a time. (PG; opens Friday, July 7, at Regal Winter Park Village Stadium 20, 407-628-0035) ' SS
Trip Payne, a three-time tournament champion also seen in Wordplay, concurs that arcana isn't the point. 'If you have a crossing of two obscure words ' some tiny African river and some extinct bird or something ' and you look at the answer and you don't know either word, the constructor failed,â?� he says. 'You should know those words. The hardness of the puzzle should come from tricky cluing. It shouldn't be from obscurity.â?�
Seated across the room, Wordplay director Patrick Creadon plays the role of partisan outsider. A cameraman with 15 years' TV and film experience, he was one of exactly two members of his crew who were crossword fans before shooting on Wordplay began. (The other was his wife and producer, Christine O'Malley.) After the film wrapped, he says, everybody was a convert.
'I think a lot of people that don't do crosswords, they're intimidated.â?� Creadon says. 'Because they feel, 'Oh, those are too hard. I could never do a crossword.' But it's like anything else ' you want to start at an easier level and work your way in.â?�
And for those who instead dismiss solving as the sport of dweebs?
'What a horrible way to go through life ' to look at someone who has a hobby that isn't your own interest and then immediately think that they're weird or strange.â?�
It's also a sure way to miss out on a good time. Reagle, Payne and Creadon certainly seem to be enjoying themselves ' they can even make a joint promotional jaunt seem like a vacation. Creadon is the eternal cheerleader, ticking off favorite moments of a movie he's seen countless times already. One personal highlight: Reagle's recitation of questionable words that are kept out of puzzles to avoid ruining solvers' breakfasts. ('And here comes 'rectal'? I don't think so.â?�) Creadon also does a spot-on impression of former president Bill Clinton emerging from his Wordplay interview. 'I really enjoyed that,â?� he mimics, in a tone suddenly as throaty as a corpse's.
Just as he appears on camera, Reagle is a genial but frighteningly bright guy who can immediately rearrange the letters in your name to form some pithy word or phrase. (He also holds an encyclopedic knowledge of vintage Looney Tunes cartoons, which explains a lot.) Payne is quieter, letting the others roll but periodically butting in with a carefully considered bon mot.
'The point is to laugh,â?� Reagle says, and it takes few moments to realize that he's not speaking of life in general, but his specialty, 'gagâ?� puzzles. After all, he reasons, 'You're not going to find a Sudoku with a punchline.â?�
'You have to be able to know your numbers to nine for that,â?� Payne deadpans.
Hey, how many feeders does that Fulda have, anyway?