What do crossword puzzles have to do with memorization? Quite a bit, actually. Completing puzzles requires solvers to recall a wide range of facts, make connections among disparate elements, and give free rein to their imagination. Similarly, creating puzzles means coming up with fresh new themes that play with language and draw inspiration from the everyday. Being a creative thinker who can approach something from multiple angles is central to both committing knowledge to memory and constructing a publication-worthy puzzle.
Which brings me to my longtime friend Michael Blake, whom I met at a crossword competition nearly a decade ago. Michael recently retired after 22 years as CFO of a prominent family foundation in San Francisco. He has been making crosswords for friends over the same time period—making him a numbers guy by day and a wordsmith by night. His last job before his foundation gig was as Country Director for the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic in the late 1980s. He had also been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the same country in the 1970s. When he departed in 1991, he was knighted by order of the country’s president. In his retirement, Michael has amped up his puzzle productivity. He constructs a monthly crossword for his neighborhood paper, the Noe Valley Voice, and has become obsessed with a relatively new (since 1995) puzzle called the Rows Garden.
Brent: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Michael. Solving puzzles has been part of your life for a long time. How long has it been?
Michael: I guess I've been solving puzzles for about 45 years. As I moved from easy to hard, the obvious next step was to try to make one.
Brent: It’s like actors who aspire to become directors. A lot of solvers ultimately try their hand at constructing. You and I both know from experience that it’s a challenging step.
Michael: My early efforts were pretty bad. I remember using the spellchecker in WordPerfect version 5.1 for DOS to try to find entries. Computers are a lot more helpful these days!
Brent: There’s the puzzle database at cruciverb.com and other online resources to help find acceptable entries, clues, and grid templates. Did the first puzzle you created get published in the New York Times?
Michael: No, the first puzzle I sold went in a book called Banned Crosswords in 2005.
Brent: That’s Jim Jenista’s publication! It’s sort of the MAD Magazine of crosswords, but a little bluer. What was your puzzle’s theme?
Michael: I had noticed that ANNA KOURNIKOVA and MARIA SHARAPOVA had the same number of letters. I also had noticed that they were attractive, and how, in my dreams, either one ROLLS ME OVA / IN THE CLOVA. I was lucky that book came out. There wouldn't have been another market for that puzzle.
Brent: Validation for tennis fans everywhere! Tell us about the first puzzle you sold to the New York Times.
Michael: I made my first sale to the New York Times in 2008, with theme entries ALVIN TOFFLER, SIMON WIESENTHAL, and THEODORE DREISER. The kicker, of course, was THE CHIPMUNKS. I have since sold a dozen other puzzles to the Times, most recently my collaboration with you on February 13, 2017!
Brent: Yes, that was my NY Times debut. Blog readers can get a free copy of that puzzle at this link. Regarding the Times, not everyone knows that Will Shortz is the puzzle editor and has done a spectacular job of popularizing crosswords. But the puzzles themselves are constructed by professionals and novices alike. Give an example of a favorite puzzle that emerged from seeing an ordinary situation in a more creative way.
Michael: You may think I'm trying to flatter you, but my favorite puzzle, constructed for my local neighborhood Noe Valley Voice newspaper, came from an idea you gave me. In San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood, the view to the west is dominated by Twin Peaks. I made a puzzle in which all of the O's made the shape of Twin Peaks. Here it is:
Brent: It was fun to collaborate with you on that. One of your puzzles has actually been immortalized in marble. What’s the story there?
Michael: I like to brag that I have the only crossword that's likely to survive a nuclear holocaust: a set of marble coasters produced by the NY Times that happened to use a puzzle I had sold them. Its theme involved replacing S with P at the beginning of four long entries, like PLUM LANDLORD: "Desirable guy to rent from?" The kicker was FOUR WAY STOP: “Feature of some intersections ... or a five-word hint to this puzzle's theme.” Four way S to P: five words, see? And now it’s immortalized in marble.
Brent: This link will take readers to an image of the coaster set to see all your clever answers. Tell me, what are your biggest challenges in moving forward with a theme?
Michael: The requirement for symmetry is probably the biggest challenge.
Brent: Right, because the standard for American crosswords is that the grid be symmetrical. The theme answers in FOUR WAY STOP puzzle, for example, have lengths of 11, 12, 15, 12, and 11 letters.
Michael: Not only do you need clever entries, but you need most of them to be paired with entries of the same length. Moreover, there is the in-the-language challenge. Something can be perfect English but not really a phrase that is spoken.
Brent: For example?
Michael: GREEN ACRES is in the language; GREEN PAINT is not. Although maybe it is now, in a “meta” sort of way, since I learned at a recent gathering of cruciverbalists [crossword constructors] that "green paint" is now the term for perfect-English-but-not-in-the-language entries one sees now and then in crosswords.
Brent: Right, it’s a perfectly grammatical phrase but not an established expression. So now you’ve moved beyond crosswords to a game called Rows Gardens. And you have created a website with puzzles available both for free and purchase. What got you hooked?
Michael: Patrick Berry's Rows Garden puzzle is an amazing invention. A normal daily 15x15 square crossword puzzle will have, at best, five or six long and interesting entries. A Rows Garden will often have 20 or more, crammed into just about the same number of spaces and no black squares. My Rows Garden puzzles have no words shorter than six letters. It’s just more fun to solve a puzzle with so many fresh entries.
Brent: How did you stumble upon this format?
Michael: In 2014, veteran puzzle constructor Myles Callum told me he'd made a Rows Garden. "You did not!" I said. Then he produced his puzzle. He also offered to show me how he did it, and particularly how he used a program called TEA Crossword Helper to find words that fit certain patterns. It was enormously time-consuming but extremely pleasurable to try to make one of these puzzles.
Brent: Do you like solving Rows Gardens as much as creating them?
Michael: Yes! I do every Patrick Berry puzzle in the Wall Street Journal, and I have subscribed to Aries Puzzles for years. I have recently begun doing Joon Pahk's Rows Gardens (they're tricky!) and really enjoying them.
Brent: What made you launch a website and Kickstarter campaign to promote Rows Gardens?
Michael: One reason I created my Kickstarter campaign is my conviction that, if more solvers tried these puzzles, there would be a much larger market. As newspapers suffer and the number of syndicates purchasing crossword puzzles shrinks, I'm happy that the Internet offers a way to tap into a market that I confess is tiny. But if I can get 100 people to become subscribers, that makes it worthwhile to produce puzzles for a small group and distribute them by email.
Brent: Well, thank you, Michael, for stimulating our mental agility with your creation. It looks as though you have exceeded your goal with the campaign. And new subscribers are always welcome. Live long and prosper!
Michael: Thank you! It’s been a pleasure.