Patrick Creadon/USA/2006; R4
RS, NZ$29.95 | Reviewed by Matt Pickering, Saradha Koirala

FOR MOST people, perhaps, crosswords are a solitary pursuit, hastily attempted in their lunch breaks, but here they become an event; a competition and communal celebration of all things lexical. Wordplay focuses on Will Shortz – New York Times Crossword editor and founder of the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Having started making puzzles at age 8, selling his first puzzle at 14, Shortz’s obsession with puzzles and puzzle-making led him to become perhaps the only graduate in the world to major in Enigmatology – the study of puzzles. In fact to do so, he first had to design the entire curriculum himself.

His position as crossword editor is a wordsmith’s dream, but it’s not all fun and games. Shortz receives an array of hate mail from disgruntled puzzlers “frogs hop, sir, toads do not. They waddle.” “You are sick, sick, sick indeed.”

Merl Reagle, a noted crossword constructor for the New York Times, creates a puzzle in front of our eyes with alarming ease and lets us in on the core principals of construction, as stipulated by 1942 crossword editor Margaret Farrar. One sixth of the puzzle must be black squares, the puzzle must have symmetry and bodily functions have no place in the clues – although Reagle admits “‘Urine’ would bail me out of a corner a million times a year, same with ‘enema’ – ‘enema’, talk about great letters!” He says it’s all about the puzzle passing the “Sunday Morning Breakfast Test” – people look forward to the Sunday puzzle all week.

Celebrity cameos from regular solvers, such as The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and former President Bill Clinton, add star-power to the documentary, but the real joys here are in the pushing of boundaries in crossword construction. The day before the winner of the 1996 election was due to be announced the New York Times Crossword diplomatically allowed either candidate’s name to fit with the clue. In a feat of linguistic creativity the corresponding words could fit either way, depending on the sway of the voter. Special features on the DVD include ‘5 Unforgettable Puzzles,’ highlighting the craftsmanship of the puzzle creators.

The main players of the 2005 crossword tournament – a community of quirky introverts – share their unique relationships with puzzle-solving. A real-time experience (2.02) of Al “I can never get under two minutes” Sanders, completing a puzzle provides the chance to test your own crosswording power: Idealistic Aspiration, 13 letters.

Inevitably, comparisons will be made to the similarly nerdy Spellbound, which follows contestants in the American National School Spelling Bee – but those kids didn’t have a talent show featuring the annual rendition of crossword/folk classic “If You Don’t Come Across (I’m Gonna be Down).”

The final showdown between the top three puzzlers will have you on the edge of your vocab, a tense two minutes of solving. Never again will you be satisfied abandoning a crossword with unfilled squares. Just to get you in the mood:

1 Across: A stern talking to (10 letters)
2 Down: To have power over (4 letters)