For Leslie

Hey there, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.

A few weeks ago, the puzzle community lost a true original and a rare friend when Leslie Billig passed away unexpectedly.

There have been many kind words shared by constructors and puzzlers who knew Leslie, like Francis Heaney, Tawan Sunathvanichkul, Amy ReynaldoTyler Hinman, Dave and Robert Mackey (aka the Puzzle Brothers), and others. I encourage everyone to click those links and read their thoughts.

I never really had the pleasure of interacting with Leslie much. Our only collaboration came when I interviewed her for a session of 5 Questions last year. Otherwise, I only know her by reputation, from many stories and anecdotes lovingly told and retold by those who knew her.

[Leslie, with Ken Jennings, at the 2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.]

Over the last few weeks, I’ve reached out to many of those people, asking if they’d share their memories of Leslie with me, and folks came out of the woodwork in order to do so.

First and foremost, Leslie was a topnotch puzzler.

Leslie began working with the Champion Division of Dell Magazines in the early 1980s and most recently has been the editor of The Crosswords Club and co-editor of Dell’s Puzzler’s Sunday Crosswords.

“Leslie and I worked together on Clubs for over 10 years, but we really got to know each other in this last year and a half of collaborating. Her creativity and wit, as well as her sharp eye for detail, shaped not only Crosswords Club and Uptown, but many publications at Dell Magazines.

We had very different editing styles and we often butted heads about how to do things — but we challenged each other in ways that made our collaborative efforts stronger. She was creative, funny, and silly… her passion for puzzles and her infectious giggle will be sorely missed by everyone who knew and worked with her. I already miss her more than I know how to express.” — Patti Varol

“Leslie was an integral part of the puzzle community for me. I worked alongside her at Dell Champion for a brief period, and worked with her on various other projects as well. She was one of the most meticulous proofreaders I’ve ever seen, and a very easy-to-work-with editor. She was a regular at the after-hours GAMES Magazine game-testing sessions in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and was always up for New York-based puzzle activities of any sort.” — Trip Payne

“In addition to working with me on Sunday Crosswords, Leslie edited first the Uptown Club, and then the Crosswords Club. They both required original titles and blurbs, since the submissions rarely came with usable ones. When Leslie started to edit them, she’s ask me for help–two heads are better than one. When I heard her say, ‘Titles and blurbs? Titles and blurbs?’ I’d drop what I was doing and we would sit and laugh as we did them. After a while, titles and blurbs morphed into kibbles and bits, and for years when I heard, ‘Kibbles and bits? Kibbles and bits?,’ that was my call to drop what I was doing and help her with …kibbles and bits! We had so much fun.

We spoke our own language: Derek Hough became Derek Huggkkhhhh. Susan Anspach (Leslie pulled that name out from the past) became Susan Anspackkkhhh.

And we agreed that the one crossword entry that made us both crazy was — FLENSE!! It only popped up occasionally, but we’d rush to change the entry. There were words we’d laugh over — I remember one word Leslie had in a grid — UNRED. She complained and complained because she couldn’t fix it … until she came up with the perfect clue — ‘Green?'” — Chris DiNapoli

“She FELT puzzles, which is a rare phenomenon for editors. She could feel why adding a comma to a clue was wrong, or removing a question mark was right.” — Mark Lagasse

[Leslie on NPR’s Ask Me Another.]

Leslie’s heart and her sense of humor were frequently the centerpieces of so many anecdotes and warm reminiscences I received.

“Leslie and I were both born on August 7, so we always wished each other ‘happy birthday to us.’ For a while, it turned into a competition to see who would beat the other person to the punch with the first birthday greeting; she usually won. One year she sent me a card; I photocopied it and faxed it back to her at the office. She also wouldn’t send out holiday greetings; she would send out e-mails saying something like ‘Happy 90th anniversary of the crossword puzzle! (Oh, and happy holidays too.)'” — Trip Payne

“Years ago, Leslie and Nancy Schuster and Chris DiNapoli and I were sitting around playing Scattergories. One of the categories was famous writers, and the letter was S. In Scattergories, since you get double points if your answer has two words both starting with the designated letter, I came up with Snorri Sturluson.

When we revealed our answers, the Leslie-laugh started – ‘Only a crossword person could possibly think of that name!’ she giggled, and we all cackled till we cried for several minutes. Snorri and that happy, happy evening will be forever associated with Leslie in my mind.” — Audrey Thompson

“Leslie was a person who never, ever failed to make me smile. She made me smile with my heart, which is a Rodgers and Hart reference that she would get. We had a lot of the same interests, and we were almost always on the same wavelength about everything. She understood fun and how to make things fun, and boy, was she fun! I didn’t think I was going to be able to write this because it is like saying goodbye, and I’m not ready for that yet. I will miss her terribly.” — Mark Lagasse

“Leslie always called her mom Sally to say hi when the clock read duplicate numbers: 3:33, 12:12, etc. After Sally passed, Leslie had that as an immediate aid that brought Sally to mind. A few nights ago as I was trying to sleep, I thought of Leslie … and remembered her clock association. Sleeping fitfully, I looked at the red numbers of my clock glowing in the dark. It was 1:11. Now memories of Leslie will come to me when I least expect it.

She was a singer, a wordsmith, an amazing woman. A theater buff (she saw Ragtime 27 1/2 times!). And she was my dear friend.” — Chris DiNapoli

She was also a devoted fan of the theater and live shows of all sorts, performing from time to time, as she did in this picture from the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament’s talent show. (Which she won, of course.)

“She loved the theater and would often accompany me, and a few other puzzle friends, on my annual Broadway excursions. It’s hard for me to even think of the New York puzzle group without Leslie in it.” — Trip Payne

“Leslie was always inviting me to stuff like concerts and Broadway shows, but always at the last minute, and I’m far less of a spontaneous person; I like to plan ahead.

She knew that I’m a fan of the jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and his singer/actress wife, Jessica Molaskey, so she invited me to go to one of their concerts with her. I would have loved to have gone, but I couldn’t make it. The concert was just prior to one of my birthdays.

She attended the concert, and seemed to pay extra close attention, and must have even taken notes, because when we went to lunch on my birthday, she presented me with a detailed, typed write-up of every song and number on the program, with every joke and anecdote that John told, making me feel as I’d actually been at the concert. That was such a thoughtful thing to do, and I’ll always remember it. And if I don’t, I still have that sheet of paper — somewhere — to remind me.” — Judy Downer

A few other wonderful anecdotes I received mentioned her love of sweets and Star Trek respectively.

“One of the things that Leslie and I had in common was a sweet tooth. For several years, a coworker brought Dunkin’ Munchkins to the office nearly every Thursday. Before leaving on Wednesdays, I would stick my head into the office where Chris and Leslie were working to see if Leslie was coming in the next day. If so, I’d be sure to put aside three chocolate Munchkins the following morning as there wouldn’t be many left by the time she got in.

Inevitably, she would stop by my office with a big smile on her face. After handing her the goodies, she would tell me that I was the best boss in the world! I would laugh and say that I must have it pretty good if that’s all it takes to be a good boss! And need I talk about the Chocolate Covered Caramelized Matzoh? She liked it so much that I made a fresh batch just for her. She was kind enough, though, to share it with others (after she and I made sure we took enough for ourselves, of course)!” — Abby Taylor

“Our previous office had a small, two-person conference room that had a door and next to the door was a large pane of glass. Leslie would do most of her work in there, sometimes closing the door. When I would leave for the day I would walk past and if the door was open we would always have a quick chat or she would walk with me to the elevator.

Now if you didn’t know, Leslie was a tremendous Star Trek fan, a fan of the movies and especially the original TV series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. So whenever I would walk past her and the door to the room was closed I would always stop and press my hand up to the glass and she would do the same, pressing her palm up to mine on the other side, reenacting the final scene between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. If you aren’t familiar with the scene, you have to look it up to really appreciate it.

Of my friend, Leslie, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, hers was the most… human.” — Glenn Covert

And, of course, you can’t think of Leslie without thinking of her signature laugh.

“I will miss Leslie’s spontaneity, her sparkle, her enthusiasm, and, as many people would agree, her uninhibited, absolutely infectious LAUGHTER.” — Judy Downer

“Once Leslie started laughing, it was tough for her to stop. Damn, I’m going to miss that laugh.” — Trip Payne

Feel free to share your own Leslie memories and anecdotes in the comment section below. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this all-too-brief tribute to a wonderful friend and fellow puzzler.

Girls Make Games (and Puzzles, too!)

[Alicia Crawford, winner of Sony Online Entertainment’s 2011 Gamers in Real Life (G.I.R.L.) Scholarship, aimed at bringing more women into the field of video game production and design. Photo courtesy of Sony Online Entertainment, by way of]

I am a huge proponent of seeing creative people succeed. From Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns to intrepid puzzlesmiths and game designers striking out on their own for the first time, I am always seeking out new stories about puzzlers enriching the world with their own creations.

So when Fred, Director of Digital Games here at PuzzleNation, passed along this link about Girls Make Games, it was right up my alley.

Girls Make Games organizes summer camp-style workshops to introduce girls to video gaming, both playing them and designing their own. It’s a very worthy cause that ties perfectly into ongoing efforts across the world to encourage more women to pursue STEM paths.

STEM education, for the uninitiated, is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, four key components to competing effectively in today’s global marketplace. Girls Make Games is a wonderful way to introduce girls to STEM courses and to add important, fresh voices to the world of video games.

[The “Nothing to Prove” video by the band The Doubleclicks.
A musical reminder that nonsense like the “fake geek girl” myth is
just one of the reasons why we need programs like Girls Make Games.]

And while it’s not reported as often as the gender gap in video-game design or considered as controversial a topic, there’s a similar disparity in the presence of female constructors and editors of crosswords among the major outlets. Ben Tausig published an article last year on the subject, and raised some intriguing points.

I admit, I was surprised by ratio of male-to-female constructors in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other big outlets, but that’s probably because I’m most familiar with the editors and puzzlers at Penny/Dell Puzzles, where the women easily outnumber the men.

Maybe this means the puzzle world could use a program along the same lines as Girls Make Games. With so many terrific puzzlers out there, from Kathy Matheson, Robin Stears, and Deb Amlen to Patti Varol, Leslie Billig, and Baffledazzle creator Rachel Happen, there are plenty of great role models out there for aspiring constructors.

I can’t wait to see what these new voices come up with.

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5 Questions with Puzzler Leslie Billig!

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

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, board game creators, writers, filmmakers, musicians, 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 overjoyed to have Leslie Billig as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Leslie, next to trivia whiz Ken Jennings, at the
2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament]

Leslie Billig began her puzzle career at Dell Magazines in 1982 and went on to create, edit, proofread, and fact-check puzzles for numerous outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Games magazine, People, and Reader’s Digest.

She’s also published her own puzzle books, authoring Sit & Solve Cryptograms for Sterling and coediting Dell Magazines’ Puzzler’s Sunday Crosswords. In addition to all that, she has served as editor of The Uptown Puzzle Club — a by-mail Puzzle of the Month Club subscription with high-quality, New York Times-style puzzles — for more than a decade, but she’s making an exciting transition to a new post! (Come on, I can’t tell you everything in the intro. *smiles*)

Leslie 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 Leslie Billig

1.) How did you first get into puzzles?

I’ve loved puzzles and wordplay from an early age, and started solving crosswords at my father’s knee. He did the New York Times crossword puzzle (in ink!) and at some point I was able to fill in the squares he left blank. I also enjoyed the variety puzzles in Dell magazines; my favorite was the Bowl-a-Score Challenger (also known as Bowl Game).

In this game, you’re given 10 letters arranged like bowling pins, and the goal is to form one word using all the letters for a “strike” and two smaller words for a “spare.” I was never satisfied to make just one spare: I’d try to form as many combos as I could: 5,5 4,6, 3,7 etc. This game instilled in me a love of anagrams that’s lasted to this day.

[Leslie performing in the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle
Tournament talent show… which she won, by the way!]

2.) In your estimation, what separates a topnotch puzzle from a run-of-the-mill puzzle? What are some favorite puzzles or clues you’ve encountered over the years?

Crossword puzzles have truly evolved in the 32 years that I’ve been in the “puzzle biz,” and I continue to be astonished by the originality and cleverness of the people who make them. A great crossword begins with the theme, of course, but I believe the fill is just as important. The solver solves the *whole* puzzle, not just the theme entries. You can have a brilliant theme, but if the rest of the grid is filled with crosswordese, Roman numerals, obscure abbreviations, and overused words, it will diminish the solving experience.

One of my favorite crosswords appeared in the January 2007 issue of the Uptown Crosswords Club. It was called Self-Effacement by Robert H. Wolfe, and the gimmick was that there were no I’s in the grid. I decided it would be even better if there were no I’s in the clues, either. That was a fun challenge!

I remember the hardest two answers to clue were ENYA and BOHR. For Enya I couldn’t use the words Irish, Gaelic, singer, vocalist, musician, or (Grammy) winner. The clue for BOHR couldn’t include Danish, Nobelist, Niels, physicist, scientist, pioneer, or Einstein (contemporary).

Another example is a terrific puzzle constructor Raymond Young made for my magazine, Dell Puzzler’s Sunday Crosswords. It was a 15×15 crossword that, when solved, became a Word Search puzzle in which the names of all the playing cards, from ace to king, were hidden. Pretty impressive for a daily-sized crossword!

3.) In addition to your work in puzzles, you’re something of a game show pro, having worked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and been a contestant on NPR’s Ask Me Another. Do you feel that your puzzle-solving experience has helped you in your game show adventures? Are there any other shows you’d like to tackle?

[Leslie on NPR’s “Ask Me Another”]

I actually held two positions while working on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — first as a researcher and then as a question writer. I’d say my years as a professional puzzle editor certainly helped me there: one picks up a lot of trivia and odd information in that line of work!

Being on Ask Me Another was a hoot. For one thing, it’s unique among game shows because so many the questions involve puzzles and wordplay, not just trivia. Right up my alley! You can hear the episode I was on at their archives.

You can listen to the whole episode, or just the segments I’m in: “Bankable Stars” (my first segment) & “Reverse Spelling Bee” (big finish).

4.) What’s next for Leslie Billig?

After 12 years as editor of the Uptown Puzzle Club, I’m excited to succeed Rich Norris — [Glenn’s note: Los Angeles Times Crossword Editor] — as editor of the Crosswords Club.

Patti Varol — [Glenn’s note: friend of the blog, puzzle constructor, and all-around good egg] — succeeds me as editor of Uptown, and solvers can continue to expect challenging and entertaining crosswords in each of these Clubs. Check them out!

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

No advice, but a request: please introduce any children in your life to the joys of puzzle solving — the pleasures and benefits will last a lifetime.

Many thanks to Leslie for her time. You can follow her work with the Crosswords Club here, and be sure to check out her library of puzzle books at Barnes & Noble here! I can’t wait to see what puzzly fun she cooks up next.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!