Confessions of a puzzler

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

My grandma was a puzzler. Not necessarily in personality — though some others may disagree — but in the sense that she liked brain teasers. Crosswords in particular. I have many memories of arriving at her house and, as I sat down at her kitchen table, she greeting me as she pushed aside a folded newspaper with a half-filled crossword. She had a special mechanical pencil that she always used, which I have inherited. There’s nothing particularly special about it, other than the strip of masking tape she wound around it to give her fingers extra grip. It was 10 years ago in July that she died, and hers is the pencil I still use to do my crosswords at home.

I don’t only do crosswords at home, though. At some point about eight years or so ago I, too, became a puzzler. It must have started when I was the editor-in-chief of the Boise Weekly. One of my duties then, as it is now at the Reader, was to double-check the crossword answers. 

As any old-salt newspaper boss would tell you, an editor can screw up a lot of things — get a date, name or even page number jump wrong — but mess with the crossword and you’re dead meat. This is true.

My method of checking the Boise Weekly crossword was to ensure the top-left and bottom-right down and across clues matched the answer key, which in our case was provided with great secrecy by The New York Times, due to the fact that we carried the Sunday puzzle. At first, I checked and moved on. As time went on, I’d ignore the answer key and linger a bit longer, filling in the boxes on my proofing sheets. Soon enough, I was taking a copy of the paper with me to lunch and work the puzzle while I ate alone and ignored everyone and everything around me.

I still do this, and it has morphed into one of my great (and really pretty few) entirely personal pleasures. Sometimes, if people I know see me sitting in a restaurant doing the Reader crossword and actively avoiding the rest of existence, they’ll poke fun at me for it. I’ll usually say something like, “The crossword is the only reason I pick up this rag,” which is actually more true than not. 

By the time the Reader appears on any given Thursday, I’ve read damn near every word in it at least twice. Not so with the crossword. I still only check the top-left and bottom-right corners, figuring that’s a pretty small cheat and trying my hardest to forget those answers as soon as I’ve verified that they match up. Heck, grandma had a whole book of crossword hints at her elbow when she did her puzzles. Not me.

I even like to add a little extra challenge to my lunch-time crossword ritual: I sit down at the table, make my order and see if I can finish the whole thing before the food comes. I can usually do it, and in pen, no less. I save grandma’s pencil for when I do the Sunday Times puzzle at home. 

My wife bought me one of those puzzle collection books for Christmas last year and wrapped it up in a brown grocery bag bearing the tag: “To: Zach, From: Will Schwartz.” Her charming misspelling of legendary Times puzzle master Will Shortz’s name has become my kids’ shorthand description for pretty much any crossword. They’ll see me working a puzzle and say, “Ah, doing your Will Schwartz?” There’s almost certainly a real-life Will Schwartz, but our imaginary version has become a part of the family — a long-lost uncle who wraps presents in brown grocery bags.

My puzzle mania has steadily spread over the years. The Reader puzzle can only occupy me for so long. I also do the Inlander’s crossword each week, though it’s a little harder for me, being a “pop culture” puzzle. I do the Bee’s sometimes, too, and (no slight intended), it’s the easiest of them all.

I’ve tried to do Sudoku, but it mostly evades me. My wife can do the hardest of Sudokus in about 15 minutes. Str8ts is a total mystery to me.

For the past year I’ve also added a bunch of online puzzles to my routine. Each morning I do the word-guessing game Wordle; then Quordle, in which you solve four Wordles at once; then Waffle, a kind of crossword that gives you only a certain number of letter “swaps” to fill in the answers. Beyond words, I also do Worldle, wherein you guess a country based on its unmarked outline; Framed, which gives you a number of guesses to identify a film based on one frame; and, finally Heardle, which is the same thing as Framed but for songs, only giving you a small number of short “skips” to get the correct answer. I suck at that last one.

My friend Ricci also does all these games, and we text each other our scores every morning with little quips, gifs and memes. It’s a nice way to start the day.

There are so few things we can control and so few things we can get right — especially these days, it seems — so maybe puzzles are a flight from that. No matter what, though, the crossword is far better than cross words. And it’s the only reason I pick up this rag.

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