Will Shortz Goes Long

by Jim Gibbons, June 22, 2016

Anyone who does crossword puzzles regularly has probably done the New York Times crossword, which is in most daily newspapers, and considered the crème de la crème of that puzzle genre. And perhaps the more observant ones may have noticed that Will Shortz is the NY Times crossword puzzles editor. Some may have even heard him on the NPR radio show, “Weekend Edition,” where he is the “Puzzle Master,” or even seen his 2006 documentary, WORDPLAY.

But how many of those folks know that he is also an avid (rabid?) table tennis player? Fact is, he is so into table tennis that he has played every day for more than three and one-half years!

But that’s not all. He recently came to Hawaii to cap off his personal record of playing ping pong (my favorite name for it) in all 50 states! Up until last week he had played in 49, with only Hawaii left on his list. Then yesterday he showed up at the Waimea Community Center, which just happens to be down the street from where I live and where I play every Monday and Wednesday afternoon.

Actually, Len Winkler, our local coach and self-appointed table tennis guru, told us a few weeks ago that Will would be here, which gave everyone in the room a blank look, like who is Will Shortz?

But I piped up because I knew who he was, and have been doing his crossword puzzles almost every day since way back in the 20th Century! I would not only get to meet him, but I’d get to play ping pong with him and with his friend and coach, Robert Roberts, one of the top three players in the country!

I decided I would do the Wednesday puzzle that morning and bring it in for him to autograph in the afternoon. That way he would know that I did it without cheating, as the answers of the daily puzzles are in the next day’s paper.

I was telling Len how the puzzles get tougher every day, starting with an easier one on Monday and by Friday they are pretty tough, which caused Len to doubt me, asking why would they do that?

What always seemed to be a natural learning progression, as in 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, etc. was suddenly questioned, which made me realize that Len not only doesn’t do crossword puzzles, he doubts that I even know what I’m talking about. I told him that would be a good question to ask Will.

On Wednesday, June 15, which just happens to be my 72nd birthday, I showed up at the Community Center with the days completed puzzle for Will to autograph.

A few of the best players on the Island, from Hilo to Kona, showed up to play, but it turned out that most came to play Roberts, whose rating is in the 2500s out of 3000. The best players on the Island are in the 1800s, and if you must know, my rating dropped at the last tournament from 600 to 597. Maybe because the only player I beat that day was a 10-year-old, and it was a close game. Luckily, I had some height advantage.

Since there were more than a few players who showed up to play the two celebs, Len was orchestrating whose turn was next. While waiting for my turn a reporter from the local newspaper, West Hawaii Today, showed up to interview Will. I was standing in the perfect place to overhear the questions and Will’s answers, until Frank pointed to an empty table and asked me to play. I couldn’t say, “No, man, I’m trying to over hear this interview.” So I joined him.

Frank, by the way, is another regular and a local attorney who lives in Captain Cook but drives to his office in Waimea, dropping his son off at Hawaii Prep Academy during the school year. Waimea has two private high schools, but for those locals who can’t afford the high cost of tuition, they must take the school bus to Honokaa, another fifteen miles down the road where the closest public high school is located.

After a few whacks back and forth I noticed that the interviewer, Landry Fuller, was taking a photo of Will, Len, and right where I had been standing just two minutes ago was now occupied by John Buck, another local player who doesn’t do crossword puzzles and is not interested, although he said his wife does them, as if that was one of her bad habits.

Then this morning I got my West Hawaii Today to read Landry’s article in the local newspaper, and there is a photo of Will, Len, and--John Buck! That would have been me with Will and Len! Thanks a lot Frank!

Will Shortz, left, spends the afternoon with North Hawaii residents Len Winkler and John Buck and others at the Waimea Community Center during his Hawaii ping pong tour. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

Will Shortz, left, spends the afternoon with North Hawaii residents Len Winkler and John Buck and others at the Waimea Community Center during his Hawaii ping pong tour. (courtesy Landry Fuller/West Hawaii Today)

After Will signed that days crossword puzzle we talked a bit, and he gave me his latest book, “Steeped in Crosswords: 180 Easy to Hard Puzzles.” He seemed like a normal guy for someone who has spent his whole life, ever since he got hooked at age nine, working crossword puzzles. He even studied puzzles in college.

He said he was told by a brain specialist that the combination of crossword puzzles and table tennis exercise every part of the human brain.

He also mentioned that his streak of playing every day was now at 1,351 consecutive days, what he assumed to be another record, as least until someone comes out of the woodwork with proof that they have played more. I agreed that’s not liable to happen.

Now that he has played in every state of the union I asked him what was next on his bucket list. He said he has played in 30 countries and would like to set a world record for playing in the most countries.

I told him I’ve been running road races and track meets since 1978 and recently ran my 525th race, but I don’t have a bucket list. In fact, there are so many things I don’t want to do, and so many places I don’t want to go, that all I have is a fuck it list.

This made him chuckle, and then Len appeared, wondering why I was taking up Will's valuable time. So I took the opportunity to ask Will, for Len's sake, why the puzzles get tougher from Monday through Friday.

Will corrected me, “Monday through Saturday.” Then proceeded to explain that weekends can be tough, especially if you've been out Saturday night, maybe didn't get enough sleep, and then Monday morning comes and you got to to work, but need something to pick you up, give you a little confidence. Finishing the first puzzle can do that. Then Tuesday's a little tougher, and like that for the rest of the week.

That seemed to satisfy Len, and then it was time for me to play table tennis with Will Shortz. Well, actually we weren't playing games, just hitting back and forth, but numerically speaking I’d say he is 3 times better than me.

2 Responses to Will Shortz Goes Long

  1. Jeff Costello Reply

    June 22, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Now there is some sports writing I can appreciate.

  2. William Ray Reply

    June 22, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    Question for NPR Weekend Edition Puzzle Master Will Shortz: Jim Gibbons ran up a tie score in his last race. What was that score?

    Answer: 5-2-5.

    Sorry, Will. You’re slow.

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