Will Shortz: Why I said yes to a crossword magic trick live at TED

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March 18, 2014 crossword courtesy of The New York Times.

Today on stage at TED2014 magician and puzzler David Kwong blew minds when he pulled an audience member onstage, asked her to color in a few animals, and then revealed he was so sure he could predict her behavior that he had her choices written into the day’s New York Times crossword. Hm: What’s a seven-letter word for boldness? Not only did Kwong need to be extremely sure of himself before his performance, but he also needed to convince the Editor of the New York Times crossword, the King Cruciverbalist himself, Will Shortz, to run the puzzle. (Watch David Kwong’s TED Talk: Two nerdy obsessions meet … and it’s magic.)

Shortz is no stranger to crossword stunts: His most famous appeared in the 1996 Election Day crossword, in which either BOB DOLE or CLINTON could work as the answer to the clue “Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper (!), with 43-Across.” In 1998 he ran a marriage proposal hidden in the puzzle. But a live performance at a major conference carries its own risks – so why did Shortz say yes? I caught up with Shortz – the only person in the world to have a degree in “enigmatology” – over the phone to ask him why he would agree to such a stunt – and what he finds delightful about the art of puzzling others.

Q. How did this collaboration with David Kwong happen?

A. I’ve known David for a number of years, and he’s been contributing crosswords to The New York Times. He spoke at an event on words that I directed a year ago with words and magic. He’s had in mind doing a grand trick involving a crossword for some time, so he asked if I would be willing to be part of it. Of course I said yes.

Q. Why “of course”?

A. I love to do new things, new twists, and this is a great one. Plus I would do anything to help David.

Q. Is there a long history of words and magic going together?

A. I don’t think so….Well, they sort of go together because crossword makers and magicians both want to trick people. We both want to deceive people. The difference is, I want people to figure it out in the end. The solver gets to say, “Aha, how smart I am,” and has the great feeling of figuring it out. Whereas with David, he doesn’t want you to understand how the trick is done. You’re left in awe, and that’s also an interesting, nice feeling.

Q. Why do people love to do puzzles? Why crosswords in particular?

A. The reason we like puzzles is it helps us bring order to life. You are faced with problems every day in life. Most of them don’t have clear-cut solutions, and in most of them we’re only involved in a portion of solving the problem. If you’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to help your kid with homework, or what’s the fastest way to run errands downtown, you just muddle through the best you can and move on to the next thing. With a puzzle, you find the perfect solution, and you’ve achieved perfection. That’s something we don’t often get in life. It’s very tidy. You feel in control.

As far as crosswords go, they are, I think, the best, most flexible form of puzzle ever created. First of all they can be made in any size and difficulty level; they incorporate virtually everything in life; any word or name can be incorporated into a crossword; and there’s something appealing about the pattern of black squares. They say that humans like to fill empty spaces. I think that’s true. Those white squares are just beckoning for you to fill them in.

Q. What’s the difference between what you experience when you make a puzzle for someone and when you solve a puzzle?

A. Well, I enjoy both, but I enjoy creating puzzles even more than making them, because it’s my way of entertaining people. Most entertainers are on stage, singing, playing piano, doing magic. My act is done in my office, creating a puzzle for others to solve.

Q. What’s your favorite thing about making puzzles?

A. Just the creativity of it. I love coming up with new ideas. I love the richness of the English language. I have puzzle books and magazines from all over the world, and I think we have the best language for creating word puzzles. You can do things in the English language you can’t do in other languages. And I love the people I come in contact with through puzzles. Puzzle solvers tend to be interesting, smart, well-rounded, often funny people, and I just like being around them.

Q. Did you meet David through his puzzle submissions?

A. Yes. Now we’ve met a number of times. I’ve watched him perform several times. He also came to my table tennis club a year or two ago, and after we played table tennis, he put on a magic show for everyone. It was very nice.

Q. Do you interact with a lot of magicians besides David?

A. No, not at all. I’m fascinated by it, but I’m always fooled. I watch, and I look, and I say, “I have no idea how that was done.” That’s how it is with David. I am so easily fooled.