There are only two days each year when the New York Times crossword puzzle is allowed to have a diabolical twist to it–April Fool’s Day and Halloween–which means that the puzzle creators look for especially clever ways to pull them off on those holidays. David Kwong, the magician and puzzle creator behind today’s spoo-OOO-ooky puzzle, came up with one such twist today. We won’t spoil it for you, but we asked Kwong to take us inside the world of “cruciverbalism” to better understand what goes into making a crossword puzzle.
“I probably spent a year kind of messing around with this from time to time,” Kwong, who in addition to being a puzzle maker, consults as a “magic specialist” on films like Now You See Me and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, explains of the Halloween puzzle. “This puzzle in particular, because it’s so trippy, took a great deal of time to make.”
If you’ve never really thought of crossword puzzles in terms like “trippy” before, it’s only because you’re probably a newcomer to the world of cruciverbalism. You might be surprised to learn, then, that the Times puzzles adjust in difficulty according to the day of the week: Monday’s puzzles are the easiest, while Saturday’s are the hardest, according to Kwong. “If one were to make a Monday puzzle, and you find the perfect theme, you can probably knock it out in a few hours,” he says. This sometimes means that a puzzle maker like Kwong can find himself waiting a while to see his work in print. “I once wrote a puzzle for April Fool’s Day and he held it for a year, for when April Fool’s Day was later in the week, because it was too hard,” he says.
Kwong has been making puzzles for 10 years, and he uses software to help him, though others in his line of work make them entirely by hand. “You’ll notice that one of the rules we adhere to is that the black squares are always rotationally symmetrical,” he says. “If you were to flip that puzzle upside down 180 degrees, the black squares would be in the same places, so a program helps with the layout–but the initial theme, and creating something clever, has to be done the old-fashioned way: with your brain and a sense of humor.”
The personal connection between puzzle maker, puzzle, and puzzle solver is what Kwong says is his favorite part of cruciverbalism. The goal, he says, is never to stump the solver. “A good puzzle is one that’s crackable,” he says. “It makes the solver feel smart–there’s that ‘A-ha!’ moment where you figure it out and you feel smart, and then you also at the same time respect the constructor for having devised it in the first place.”
If you figure out the twist in today’s Halloween puzzle from Kwong in the Times, in other words, you might feel like the smartest person alive for a few minutes–and that’s exactly what Kwong is going for: “The exact function of the puzzle is you want people to feel smart.”