Farewell, Bernice.

Part of writing for PuzzleNation Blog is constantly learning and unearthing new aspects of puzzle history. Whether it’s the history of puzzles themselves, like the 100th anniversary of the crossword in 2013, or significant moments from history that involved puzzles, like the use of crosswords to recruit cryptographers for Bletchley Park’s codecracking efforts during World War II.

And you simply can’t talk about the history of puzzles without mentioning constructor Bernice Gordon, one of the most recognizable names in crosswords for more than half a century.

Bernice’s first crossword was published in The New York Times in 1952, establishing a legacy of elegant, well-constructed puzzles that would span nearly seven decades. A favorite of both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, Bernice actually didn’t start creating crosswords until she was 35, a late start for someone with such an expansive track record to come.

She set records for the longest tenure as a crossword constructor and eldest crossword constructor — publishing puzzles at 101 years old! — as well as teaming up with constructor and friend of the blog David Steinberg for largest age gap between collaborators, with 86 years between them!

Will Shortz estimated that Bernice published more than 120 puzzles with the Times, and you can check out the lion’s share of them over on XWordInfo, dating back as far as 1965.

Sadly, Bernice passed away early Thursday morning, having left an indelible mark on the world of crosswords, with many friends and admirers celebrating her marvelous life and decades of sparkling puzzly wordplay.

Many puzzlers and admirers have written wonderful tributes to Bernice, but I have to single out the heartfelt words of David Steinberg, who memorialized his friend and fellow constructor in fine form here.

I only know Bernice through her puzzles, but I always found them to be clever, charming, and constructed with grace and skill. And based on what I’ve read about her over the last few days, many of those admirable qualities are reflections of the woman behind the puzzles.

Thank you, Bernice. You will be missed.

Crosswords, Cryptics, Constructors, and… Setters?

One of the privileges of writing two or three posts a week for this blog is that it pushes me to expand my own horizons when it comes to puzzles. I reach out to puzzlers, game designers, and pop culture personalities of all sorts; I try out new games and puzzles; I obsessively scour the Internet for new projects, new products, and new stories that involve puzzles.

Oftentimes, that continuous search takes me beyond the borders of the United States, allowing me to explore what puzzles mean to other countries and cultures. And I am forever intrigued by the differences in crossword puzzles between America and the UK.

The world of cryptic crosswords (or British-style crosswords, as some call them) is a bit different from the world of American crosswords. Instead of constructors, they have compilers or setters, and while constructor bylines and attributions were a long time coming on this side of the Atlantic, setters in the UK have been drawing loyal followings for decades, thanks to their unique and evocative pseudonyms.

While Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Patrick Blindauer, Brendan Emmett QuigleyPatrick Berry, Trip Payne, Matt Gaffney, and Bernice Gordon represent some of the top puzzlers to grace the pages of the New York Times Crossword, names such as Araucaria, Qaos, Arachne, Crucible, Otterden, Tramp, Morph, Gordius, Shed, Enigmatist, and Paul are their word-twisting counterparts featured in The Guardian and other UK outlets.

In fact, beloved setter Araucaria will soon be the subject of a documentary. For more than 50 years, he challenged and delighted cryptic crossword fans, amassing a loyal following. In January of 2013, he even shared his cancer diagnosis with the audience through a puzzle in The Guardian.

While the Wordplay documentary, as well as interviews on PuzzleNation Blog and other sites, have given solvers some insight into the minds and lives of constructors and setters, it’s wonderful to know that the life of a fellow puzzler will be chronicled in so intimate a format.

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5 Questions with Constructor and Puzzle Archivist David Steinberg

Welcome to the eighth edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m excited to have David Steinberg as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

With crosswords published in both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times by the age of 15, David practically has crosswords in his DNA. He’s the crossword editor for The Orange County Register’s numerous publications, as well as the founder of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, an ongoing effort to digitize every New York Times crossword from before Will Shortz took over as editor. And he’s accomplished all of this before the age of 18!

David was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for David Steinberg

1.) How did you get started with puzzles?

I started doing puzzles when I was very young — in early elementary school, maybe even kindergarten, I was doing puzzles in books my parents bought me. I was really into Jumble puzzles — I remember that one year, my elementary school had congratulatory “graduation” ads parents could buy to help support the school, and my mom designed one for me that was a Jumble puzzle.

But I didn’t really get into crosswords until I was twelve. My dad had been trying to do the crosswords in The Seattle Times, and I liked watching him and trying to help. My mom noticed my interest and thought I might like seeing the documentary Wordplay, so we checked it out of the library. I saw how Merl Reagle built a puzzle by hand and thought maybe I could do one, so the next day I did. And that was how I got started.

2.) With the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, you’ve established yourself as one of the key preservers of Puzzle History. Can you give the PuzzleNation readership an update on where the project stands right now and your projections for the future?

Thanks! As I write this, more than 12,100 puzzles have been digitized, or “litzed.” [Glenn’s note: As of publication today, the total is over 12,900.] We’re working backwards in time — we started in 1993 and are now litzing puzzles from 1961. We’re currently proofreading puzzles from 1980; all the pre-Shortzian puzzles from 1981 through November 20, 1993, are posted on XWord Info.

We’re in the middle of our third litzing contest, “Litzstarter,” and the goal is to reach 13,000 puzzles by the end of October. I’m hoping we finish litzing all the available puzzles by the end of 2014. I say “available,” because quite a few puzzles that were scheduled for publication in The New York Times were never published because of newspaper strikes. They likely appeared in other publications, however, and after all the puzzles we have are litzed, I’ll be launching an effort to track down the missing puzzles.

The proofreading is progressing at a slower pace because we only have a few proofreaders. My hope is that after the litzing is done, some of the litzers will become proofreaders. Finishing all the proofreading will probably take several more years, but I want the litzed puzzles to have as few mistakes in them as possible.

(Interestingly, many pre-Shortzian puzzles contain editorial errors — in most cases, we’re leaving those in, sometimes with notes that will be added later, so that the litzed puzzles will be accurate representations of what originally appeared in the paper. When the errors appear to be simply typesetting mistakes, we usually correct them.)

One other thing that’s happened recently is that I won a Davidson Fellows Scholarship for the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project. This award was very gratifying, because it demonstrated that the project is of value to a wider community, not just to cruciverbalists.

3.) The hundredth anniversary of the crossword is fast approaching. Given your familiarity with puzzles both past and present, what does the hundredth anniversary mean to you? And what are the odds people in the future will be celebrating the crossword’s bicentennial with similar gusto?

The hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle means a lot to me — it shows just how long patterns of black and white squares have fascinated solvers. It’s amazing how much the crossword puzzle has evolved since Arthur Wynne’s first construction in 1913 — from crossing a bunch of words in the dictionary to symmetrical grids and entries from the news to complex themes like rebuses and entries reading backwards!

I wonder how crosswords will continue to evolve as new terms become in-the-language and new theme types become more widely used — perhaps they’ll be superseded by some completely different puzzle type. Either way, I think the 200th anniversary of the crossword puzzle will be very significant!

4.) What’s next for David Steinberg?

Between running the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, editing crosswords for the Orange County Register’s associated newspapers, constructing my own crosswords, and going to school, I don’t have much time to look ahead! But I do plan on going to college in a couple of years and hope to eventually become a software engineer. I plan on continuing to construct and edit crosswords, though, for the rest of my life!

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

One piece of advice I have for puzzle solvers is never to get too locked into answers you fill in that aren’t flat-out gimmes. Crossword constructors like to use a lot of misdirection — at times, I’ve had to erase five or six answers in a single corner before being able to finish! Erasing guesses and starting a puzzle with a clean slate can also be very helpful.

Similarly, crossword constructors shouldn’t get too locked into a particular fill and should explore all options — you never know what possibilities are out there until you explore everything!

Many thanks to David for his time. You can follow the progress of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project on their website, as well as David’s editorial efforts on the Orange County Register website. David continues to set records (most recently for the greatest age difference between collaborating constructors, when he worked with 99-year-old Bernice Gordon), and will no doubt be influencing the puzzle world for a long, long time to come.

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