The New York Times crossword is an American institution and is completed by millions of players every day. To most, it is just an easy way to pass some free time and how well they do is not important. To others however, the speed of completion and how this compares to others is incredibly important – enough in fact to have spawned the sport of competitive crosswording. While the idea of competitive crosswording may be new to most, as Patrick Creadon’s excellent 2006 documentary feature Wordplay explains, it has been around for many years and shows no sign of stopping.
Wordplay begins by introducing Will Shortz who has been the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle since 1993. A mild mannered Indiana native, Shortz explains the lure of the crossword and explains how his own fascination with puzzles since childhood lead him to found the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 1978. Every year competitors descend on Stamford, Connecticut to compete against other enthusiasts for the hotly contested prize of champion crossword puzzler.
With whimsical contributions from some heavy hitting celebrities such as John Stewart and Bill Clinton interspersed along the way, we are introduced to some of the best crossword puzzlers from across the nation and also to one of the most prolific crossword compilers who gives a fascinating explanation of the process of creating a new puzzle. The seemingly innocuous collection of black and white squares that we all take for granted come to life as the compiler gives an incite into his thought process and shows how to incorporated a theme into each puzzle rather than making it just a collection of random words that happen to fit together. Hearing everyone then enthusiastically explain why they love crossword puzzles so much gives credence to the hard work put in by the incredibly intelligent people behind what to many is the most important part of the newspaper.
With the introductions and explanations complete, the rest of Wordplay covers the 2006 annual tournament. With many returning contestants each year, the family atmosphere of the event is infectiously showcased before the puzzling begins in earnest.
With the contest consisting of a series of timed preliminary rounds in which everyone competes, the top three in each category progress to the grand final to complete one final crossword to decide the champion. Standing on a stage in front of a crowd using whiteboards on giant easels the final three play head to head against one another in a timed race for the title. Whilst this may not sound particularly exciting, it is unexpectedly nail biting and the whole thing is wonderful to watch.
With the perfect mix of explanation, interesting talking heads, unusual subject matter and charismatic leading players coupled with unexpected drama throughout the final tournament, Wordplay is a masterpiece of almost unrivalled quality. It is impossible not to grin throughout the entire 94 minute run time at the wonderful world these people enjoy and it is easy to see why it won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury prize in 2006. Wordplay is a gem that is well worth finding and can be watched multiple times without any of the enjoyment diminishing.