Wordplay: Why Are Crossword Puzzles so Popular?

An estimated 50 million Americans do crossword puzzles every week. What makes the game so popular? Who are these people? It is certainly an odd passion to those who do not partake in the weekly (or with some people daily) hobby. Director Patrick Creadon’s Worldplay is a love letter to those who play the puzzles, as well as those who give them their fix.

The breezy film begins by focusing on Will Shortz, the editor of The New York Times’ crossword puzzle, which audiences learn is the gold standard of crossword puzzles (it’s also the one that standardized the puzzle format, which all crossword puzzles obey to ’til this day). Shortz’s original claim to fame was starting the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament where folks from all over the country come together to try to claim the Best in America prize.

One of the best scenes in Wordplay comes when Shortz reads his “fan mail” where readers complain about the level of difficulty of the daily puzzles. For those who don’t know, Monday puzzles are the easiest of the week, with each successive day’s puzzle crescendoing until Sunday, which is the true brain bender.

The movie also introduces us to Merl Reagle, one of the pros who constructs the brainteasers. The sequence where viewers witness his creation of a Tuesday puzzle is fascinating, as the words flow out of him with a rhythm that is unexpected. Creadon then brings out familiar faces like the Indigo Girls and fellow documentarian Ken Burns who wax poetic about puzzles and their effect on their lives. Each of these individuals brings a unique view of the hobby, from Jon Stewart taking each day’s puzzle as a personal challenge between Shortz and himself to Bill Clinton comparing solving a tough puzzle to the way one solves a political problem.

Finally, audiences meet some of the competitors for the 2005 championship, which include Jon Delfin (piano player), Tyler Hinman (college student), Ellen Ripstein (editor), Al Sanders (project manager for Hewlett-Packard) and Trip Payne (the youngest champion of the tournament). Viewers learn that the occupations that do the best at the tournament are typically musicians or come from math-related backgrounds. It is surmised that both disciplines are uniquely suited to processing and solving the grid frames in a timely manner.

All of the contestants audiences meet are uniquely interesting, from tough-luck Al who has made the finals five times in six years to Ellen, a self-proclaimed nerd who used to throw out the fact that she was a national champion to her former boyfriend (“What are you the best at?”). Unlike some documentaries where the end competition is hostile, these participants all have a ton of respect for each other. They may want to win desperately (especially Tyler, who seeks to become the youngest winner ever), but fair play is the theme of the day. Especially noteworthy is when Al and Trip are convinced of a scoring error of one of their adversaries and lodge an inquiry so he gets his due points.

As the rounds continue and the field is whittled down to the final three, heartbreak and triumph is but a missed word away. The finale is truly surprising, as the last trio go mano a mano against each other and the clock.

Wordplay might seem like a rip-off of Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound, the hit documentary from a few years ago, however, Creadon is a crossword enthusiast himself and only decided to make the film after he realized no piece had been done on Will Shortz. Love obviously went into the movie’s creation, as all the players are treated with respect. Creadon, who has been a cameraman for years, has crafted an effective debut feature. Surely he will be a force in the documentary world for years to come.

So the final question remains, why do people love crossword puzzles so much? Creadon never answers directly, and everyone interviewed seems to give a different answer. Perhaps that’s the beauty of the crossword puzzle. It means different things to different people.

Three and a half stars out of four

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