When David Steinberg was 12 years old, he saw a documentary that changed his life.
“Wordplay,” which focuses on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in New York, introduced Steinberg to the famous players who create, solve and publish crossword puzzles, among them Editor Will Shortz and constructor Merl Reagle.
After watching the documentary, Steinberg, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident, picked up a pencil and started putting letters on graph paper, a practice that would eventually put him in touch with Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor.
Steinberg still has a copy of his first puzzle, which Shortz “politely rejected,” said Steinberg.
But Shortz gave Steinberg suggestions, and each time the teen sent him a puzzle, Shortz would encourage him and offer advice.
At last, Steinberg’s 17th puzzle was accepted.
“Shortz said it was a good idea,” Steinberg said. “He asked me to fix some things, and it was published several weeks later.”
That was last year, when Steinberg was 14 years old — the second youngest constructor to publish a crossword in The New York Times under Shortz’s editorship.
Now Steinberg uses software to help with crossword construction, and 16 of his puzzles have appeared in the NYT, Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. Three have appeared online, and one was published in a book called “20 Under 30.” Seventeen more have been accepted by the NYT.
In September, the 15-year-old released his first book of crossword puzzles, titled “Chromatics,” with puzzle publisher Puzzazz. The 25 puzzles have themes all related to colors. In one puzzle, called “The Scarlet Letter,” the only vowel used is “a.”
“I enjoy constructing them,” he said. “It’s challenging and fun.”
The hardest part of creating “Chromatics” was coming up with the clues.
“Even in easy puzzles, you still see challenging clues,” he said. He gives the example of the word YVES, for which the clue might be “designer St. Laurent” or “surrealist painter Tanguy.”
"Yves Tanguy is not as well known as Yves St. Laurent," he explained.
Naturally, the constructor also enjoys solving crossword puzzles — and learning the conventions and history of the word game. In the NYT and other publications, the crossword becomes more difficult each day from Monday to Saturday, the hardest puzzle of the week. Sunday’s is a larger puzzle, about the difficulty of a Thursday.
“What differentiates the NYT is the clues are clever, and there’s a lot of misdirection in the clues, not a dictionary definition, as was typical of older puzzles before Will Shortz’s time,” Steinberg said. “Generally, the Monday through Thursday and Sunday puzzles have themes, while the Friday and Saturday puzzles are themeless. The ones without themes are harder to solve because there’s no pattern.”
Steinberg has published a Monday, a Tuesday, two Thursdays, a Friday, and recently a Sunday puzzle in collaboration with another constructor.
He has become markedly better at solving puzzles and attempts the NYT puzzle every day, usually with success.
“I was 12 when I started solving, and I used to be really bad. I couldn’t finish the Monday NYT puzzles. It was pretty depressing,” he said. “I had to stick with it and keep trying, and now I’m fast at easy puzzles and can finish Fridays and Saturdays.”
Having established himself as a solver and a constructor, Steinberg has also become a litzer — one who converts puzzles by entering the clues and the solved puzzle into a computer program. He’s managing the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, a collaborative effort to digitize NYT crossword puzzles published from Feb. 15, 1942, to Nov. 20, 1993 — before Will Shortz became editor — and make them accessible for study or for fun.
When the project is done, it will be “a cool resource,” Steinberg said, “and useful, especially because a whole bunch of words not used since before Shortz took over are in these puzzles.”
Steinberg began the project for his Science Research course at Peninsula High School, where he is a sophomore this year. The academic community recognized his achievement in March, when the project won the Mu Alpha Theta National Mathematics Honor Society award for “the most challenging, original, thorough and creative investigation of a problem involving mathematics accessible to a high school student.”
“I originally worked on the project myself,” Steinberg said. “I did 1993, and thought it would be more efficient if I opened it to the wonderful, efficient crossword community.”
He made an announcement in June on cruciverb.com, a mailing list, and “got a whole bunch of people volunteering,” he said. “So far it’s been fantastic. We’ve converted lots and lots of puzzles, all of 1990 through 1993.”
The Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project allows Steinberg and others to look back and see how crossword puzzles evolved.
“The first crossword puzzle I looked at was from 1944,” he said. “That was interesting because there was lots of World War II related trivia that was in the newspapers then. Now we look back and say, ‘What is this?’ It was really cool to see that for the first time, also to see the evolution of themes. Most are themeless, then in a gradual process, each year are more and more themed puzzles.”
Very few people can make a career out of crossword puzzles, and Steinberg is hoping to become a computer scientist someday. However, he knows that crosswords will always be part of his life.
“It’s a really fun pastime,” he said. “It also helps build vocabulary and gain common knowledge, and the puzzles are interesting historically. It’s really very addictive when you start constructing and solving, and you don’t stop unless you solve one and don’t like it. Crossword puzzles are a lifelong passion.”
Additional information about Steinberg, the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project and “Chromatics” is available at www.customcrossword.com/p/about-me.html, www.preshortzianpuzzleproject.com and www.puzzazz.com/Steinberg.