Thursday, April 18, 2024

Will Shortz Plays With Words at Crest Theatre

Ever wonder what other phrases can be spelled out of the letters comprising D-E-L-R-A-Y B-E-A-C-H, F-L-O-R-I-D-A? “A Drily adorable chef” is a good one for culinary aficionados. Or how about “Lady fried a bachelor,” popular among feminists?

Both anagrams came courtesy of New York Times crossword puzzle master Will Shortz, who entertained a sold-out audience at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach

this afternoon. Like most word masters, Shortz sees phrases differently than most of us – he sees them as jumbles of letters just waiting for new combinations. “’PONTIAC’ makes ‘CAPTION,’” he retorted, without even thinking about it, when a member of the audience questioned him about this talent (It also makes PACTION, for the record).

I can’t imagine a more enjoyable afternoon for wordplay lovers than Shortz’s presentation, which began at 2 p.m. with a few examples of some of his favorite New York Times puzzles of the past 12 months. The gold standard of crossword puzzles, the Times has had a significant role in elevating the crossword to new heights of elegance and sophistication, adding wit and thematic density to a formula that has been around since 1913. Some of Shortz’s examples were astounding, including a Chinese New Year-themed puzzle that integrated picture icons of all the animals in the Chinese calendar in place of certain letter spaces. Another design prompted puzzlers to poke holes in the paper on spaces where the word “Hole” would be, in order to construct a game-ending pun.

Shortz then went through a few basic rules of crossword puzzles – no made-up words, no two-letter words, every square must connect to another square, etc. – before offering a fascinating history of the crossword puzzle. Shortz, the only person to ever major in “enigmatology,” or puzzle-making, in college, knows about such things. Among his brief history of crosswords: The first book ever published by Simon and Schuster was, in fact, the world’s first crossword puzzle collection. The publishers, who had their sights on high-end literature, took their names off the initial publication; when it sold like hotcakes, they began to add their names to the third or fourth printings.

Shortz’s presentation continued with a lively Q&A session and concluded with a communal puzzle competition, with the room divided halfway into two teams for a game that combined anagramming, pop-culture knowledge and Wheel of Fortune. A dose of intellectual candy, Shortz’s lecture proved quite an opportunity to flex your brain muscles, especially for a Thursday afternoon.

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