Some people lie in bed at night and count sheep. Matt Gaffney ponders themes for crossword puzzles. “Sometimes that means I’m jolted awake right when I’m about to fall asleep, because I think of something promising,” says the 33-year-old Adams Morgan resident. “But just as often I simply fall asleep.”
This form of nocturnal brainstorming might seem somewhat strange, but then Gaffney has a rather unusual job.
There are more letters in the English alphabet than there are full-time professional crossword constructors in the United States. In his new book, Gridlock: Crossword Puzzles and the Mad Geniuses Who Create Them, Gaffney counts himself among only “about fifteen” such career cruciverbalists.
It’s a pretty difficult way to eke out a living, with each puzzle selling for, at most, a few hundred dollars. But Gaffney, who’s been hawking the black-and-white grids since age 13, does just fine. In 2000, for instance, his crosswords earned him about $73,000, according to the book. In recent years, he says, he’s netted even more.
Sure, in the past, some of that income has derived from whoring his puzzling services to magazines such as Tabbies. “Star answers,” he writes, “included meow (‘Cat’s comment’), petted (‘Stroked kitty’), pawed (‘Touched, cat-style’) and stripe (‘Tabby feature, often’).” His more typical clients include Washingtonian, which prints his D.C.-themed puzzle each month, and recording-industry bible Billboard. The syndicated “Jonesin’ Crosswords,” which Gaffney edits and markets, appears in more than 50 alternative newsweeklies across the United States and Canada (though not in his hometown Washington City Paper).
Of course, no clue-and-grid creator earns much cred without first contributing to the granddaddy of all crossword columns in the New York Times. Gaffney’s done that, wowing the Times’ iconic crossword editor, Will Shortz, with his mad technical skills. Shortz recalls in particular Gaffney’s “triple-pangram crossword of November 14, 1998.”
“A pangram, as you may know, is a piece of writing that contains all 26 letters of the alphabet at least once each,” says Shortz in an e-mail. “In terms of a 15×15-square crossword, it’s pretty difficult to make a good puzzle that uses all 26 letters. To do such a puzzle that uses every letter of the alphabet twice is incredibly hard. And to do such a puzzle that uses every letter at least three times is virtually impossible. Matt did it, though, and very stylishly, with triple pangram reading across the middle of the grid and mind your p’s and q’s reading down the middle (crossing on the P). This was an astonishing, very pretty feat of construction.”
Awing puzzle geeks is one thing; impressing the masses quite another. With Gridlock, Gaffney hopes to accomplish what others have failed at: contributing to society “the great American crossword book,” as he puts it. “There have been a couple of attempts at writing this, like, picture-of-the-crossword-scene book, and they just sucked.”
In the book, Gaffney delves deeper into the puzzling subculture than the usual obligatory coverage of the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. He sneaks the reader into the secretive mid-tourney Saturday Night Beer Bash, where the crossword elite engage in testy, booze-fueled debates about obscure terms and occasionally smash electronics. Gaffney also goes behind the scenes of the crossword-publishing industry, discussing, for instance, the marketing genius behind the toilet-shaped Sit & Solve books.
Gridlock offers a glimpse of the profession’s possibly bleak future, in the form of Gaffney’s grand experiment: a Kasparovesque contest pitting human puzzle makers against crossword-generating computers. Want to know how Team Humanity comes out looking? Know a six-letter word for “had intercourse”?
Though he remains a crossword stalwart, Gaffney has begun to branch out into other popular puzzles as well, including—gasp!—Sudoku. Initially resistant to the numbers-game craze, Gaffney was hired last year by the publishers of Complete Idiot’s Guides to pen a how-to reference for that other puzzle fav. He soon got hooked.
The former crossword snob now puts out his own syndicated Sudoku. “I’ve gone to the dark side in that way,” he says. —Chris Shott