Presidential Puzzling

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of established constructors collaborating with celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

And for the May installment of this celebrity series, none other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

The puzzle was offered free online by The New York Times. Although the Friday puzzle is usually themeless, there was a link between three of the main answers, DON’T STOP, THINKING ABOUT, and TOMORROW, which of course spell out the title of his campaign song.

Will Shortz offered further details on the creative process:

In the case of today’s puzzle, Judge Fleming constructed the grid, with some input from Mr. Clinton. The president wrote most of the clues. When the judge proposed tweaks to certain clues, Mr. Clinton objected: “Too easy and boring. Might as well print the answers in the puzzle.”

I found it to be a pretty fair solve, although there were a few outlier answers that were much, much tougher than the rest of the field. (Either that or I need to bone up on my Indonesian geography.)

Shortz also offered a glimpse of the celebrity constructors to come, teasing readers with mentions of “a pop singer with a No. 1 hit, a noted fashion designer, a standup comedian, a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others.”

It’ll be interesting to see which celebrity solvers have accepted the challenge of constructing a puzzle of their own.


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Riddle Me This, Batman!

With so much Dark Knight-related news floating around, this might very well be the Year of Batman.

Not only is it the 75th anniversary of Batman’s first appearance in comics, but he’s going to be all over screens in the coming months. There are already teaser images out for the 2016 Batman Vs. Superman film, plus Fox’s upcoming prequel drama Gotham. As if that wasn’t enough, it was recently announced that the entire 1960s television series is coming to DVD and Blu-ray!

So it’s the perfect opportunity to take a look at Batman’s puzzliest foe, The Riddler.

Played by Frank Gorshin (and John Astin, in one episode) in the 1960s TV series, The Riddler was absolutely manic, often breaking into wild fits of anger and laughter, compulsive in his need to send taunting riddles to the Caped Crusader. (This actually became a point of contention with his fellow villains in the Batman film, since they didn’t appreciate Batman being tipped off to their plans by the Riddler’s riddles.)

His riddles were similarly inconsistent and unpredictable. Some of them were genuine puzzlers (highlight for answers):

  • How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people? Make applesauce.
  • There are three men in a boat with four cigarettes but no matches. How do they manage to smoke? They throw one cigarette overboard and make the boat a cigarette lighter.

Others were similar to children’s jokes, silly in the extreme:

  • What has yellow skin and writes? A ballpoint banana.
  • What suit of cards lays eggs? One that’s chicken-hearted.

While Gorshin’s Riddler is probably the most famous and familiar version of the villain, my personal favorite was the Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series.

This Riddler (voiced by actor John Glover) was more suave, sophisticated, and cunning. In his debut episode, entitled “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”, he challenged Batman and Robin with a boobytrap-filled labyrinth, complete with numerous riddles that were far more challenging than Gorshin’s Riddler would ever use.

Fittingly, a final riddle — the Riddle of the Minotaur — awaits Batman at the center of the labyrinth. Can you solve it?

I have millions of eyes, but live in darkness.
I have millions of ears, but only four lobes.
I have no muscles, but I rule two hemispheres.
What am I? The human brain.

This version of the Riddler only appeared a few times in the animated series, due to the writers’ difficulty coming up with his riddles and keeping his complex plots simple enough to fit into a single episode’s runtime. Nonetheless, this Riddler remains a fan favorite.

In the film Batman Forever, Jim Carrey actually gives us three versions of the Riddler: the scientist Edward Nygma (who definitely has a screw or two loose), the businessman Edward Nygma (a charming, public facade betraying none of his truly villainous tendencies), and the Riddler (a diabolical, borderline insane villain with an ax to grind with Bruce Wayne). Whether you like Carrey’s take on the character or not, he embodies an effective combination of Gorshin and Glover’s Riddlers.

Of course, despite his bizarre plan to read people’s minds through television and become smarter by doing so, this Riddler had one advantage over the previous versions: he had puzzlemaster Will Shortz designing his riddles for him.

While each riddle by itself meant little, except for providing a challenge to Batman’s intellect, all of them combined revealed the Riddler’s identity and set up the final showdown between the heroes and villains.

As for the newest version of the Riddler in Fox’s fall premiere Gotham, we don’t know a lot about him, since this is set in the days before Batman prowled the streets.

Apparently, the younger Edward Nygma (played by theater actor Cory Michael Smith) is a forensic scientist working for the police (who may formulate his notes in the form of riddles).

Hopefully, this Riddler will carry on the fine tradition of Riddlers past, challenging the defenders of Gotham to outthink him, rather than outfight him.


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