Why I Love Crossword Puzzles

Getting ready to dig into the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. July 27, 2014.

Getting ready to dig into the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. July 27, 2014.

People tease that they wouldn’t play Scrabble with me. After all, I love words. I admire how other people use language. And I work hard to use words well myself. They figure they couldn't win.

Yet I’d venture that Scrabble experts love the game less for its use of language than for its employment of strategy and memorization—almost like chess. The best Scrabble players have memorized high-scoring words that few people speak or write, know the quantity of each letter the game provides, think many words ahead, and use these data points to develop strategies and work the board for maximal points.

I don't find chess terribly compelling. And I like language that lives, not words that fit a strategy. No one crafts sentences from words like xi, zax, or quanat: “Bob, the guy who forgot xi in reciting the Greek alphabet, mistakenly tried to dig a quanat with his zax.” No.

Of course, I enjoy Scrabble. I love board games in general. But I can’t claim Scrabble wizardry—or even to adore the game.

Crossword puzzles, though? Love.

Crossword puzzle writers and editors play with language to develop clues that lead players to words typically within their everyday lexicon. Unpacking the creators' thinking, watching the answers piece together via cross-hatching with words from other solved clues, and seeing quadrants of the puzzle fill in with letters feel like collaboration: “Oh, I see what you did there. Clever!”

I love crossword puzzles like I love rap music—for the word play that goes beyond strategy and memorization into creative problem solving that turns and twists language into art.

Perhaps more rap artists and fans should pick up the hobby.

What types of puzzles do you like best—and why?