What's the Word?

Crossword-puzzler Al Sanders has had his ups and downs.

A yellowing newspaper clipping from the Houston Chronicle hangs on the wall in Al Sanders's home office in Fort Collins. The matted and framed article, dated January 27, 1964, is accompanied by a photograph of a five-year-old boy, identified as Austin Sanders III, sitting on his mother's lap. He is reading Life magazine.

"At five, he is something of a master of the written word," the story notes. "He taught himself to read -- and not just simple children's books...but things like the daily newspapers, magazines and dictionaries."

The boy's reading skills apparently arrived suddenly, all in a rush. Before the age of two and a half, he barely spoke at all. Then, one day, his mother noticed him matching symbols from newspaper and Yellow Pages ads with the real businesses around town.

Al Sanders works on a puzzle.
Anthony Camera
Al Sanders works on a puzzle.

He began talking soon after that. But no one could understand him. The words poured out in such a torrent that it sounded like no language anyone had heard. So his parents had him tested. Their doctor was reassuring. He told them their only child's tongue merely needed time to catch up with his brain: Austin's thoughts were so far ahead of his words that it rendered his speech unintelligible.

"Al enjoys word games and quiz-type television programs," the article added.

"I want to know everything," the boy explained.

The reporter asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

"A cash register man," he replied.

On a recent Monday morning, Al, now 43, sits down at his kitchen table to do the New York Times daily crossword puzzle. His children are in school; his wife is running errands. The family's aging and deaf spaniel has been put outside. The house is quiet.

He has printed the puzzle off the Internet. The Times releases its crosswords the night before actual hard-copy publication. Recently, Al discovered how to adjust his printer so that the blank squares in the puzzles come out gray instead of black. This saves money on ink.

Al pushes his glasses up and adjusts his mechanical pencil. (Using a pen is show-offy, he believes; besides, it's too slow if you have to erase.) He removes his watch from his left wrist, sets it to its stopwatch function and places it next to the puzzle. He takes a breath. Then, with his left hand, he starts the watch. He begins writing with his right.

He moves clockwise around the puzzle, upper left to upper right to lower right to lower left. He reads the clues out loud and then answers them under his breath. His talk is nonstop. There are no pauses, verbal punctuation being a colossal waste of time.

"Decoration on an Indian moccasin bead sound of astonishment gasp relative of a croc gator therefore ergo long (for) ache blazing afire 'You said it!' amen tall tale teller liar like property for businesses zoned 'Good Will Hunting' actress Minnie Driver..."

As Al advances through the puzzle, his pencil is like his early speech, always one step behind his brain, still writing the answer to the previous clue as he reads aloud the next. He writes in all capital letters.

"Ferdinand's queen Isabella shooter pellet pea compete (for) vie storage places closets theater district Rialto helps out aids..."

There are 66 clues in the "across" column, 58 in the "down." Of the 124 answers, there are two that Al does not know immediately; however, those blanks are filled in as he races through the other clues. When he puts down his pencil and hits the button on his watch, the time reads two minutes and 27 seconds.

"Under two-thirty," Al says. "It's a good day."

He adds, "When I tell people I do ten puzzles a day, they're like, 'Whoa!' But in all, it probably takes less than an hour."

Being a successful crossworder is a particular skill, which is to say it is not very transferable. Many people assume, for example, that those who are infatuated with crossword puzzles are also good at other word games, such as Scrabble. But Scrabble players are derided by crossword solvers as mere memorizers, freaks who know how to spell many obscure words even though they may have no idea of the definitions.

Still, it was not so long ago that crossworders were more akin to Scrabblers than they are today. Crossword puzzles began as little more than vocabulary and geography exams. Clues were straight tests of knowledge: A town in central Scotland. A small galley propelled by both sails and oars. The space between nose and lip.

About twenty years ago, though, the editors of Games magazine, a new publication dedicated to serious wordsmiths, began to change all that. In an attempt to inject more playfulness and pizzazz into crosswords, they decided to make all of their answers to crossword puzzles common words. They reserved their creativity for the clues, which began to resemble riddles and wordplay more than mere definitions.

The shift turned the entire game upside down and bred a new class of crossworder. Now, while still being rewarded for a broad range of general knowledge, today's best solvers achieve success not by memorizing the dictionary, but by letting their brains wander to places slightly off-center.

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