Photo by Joe Lawton
David J. Kahn ’63 creates quirky
crosswords known to exasperate
even the best puzzle solvers
By Carol Boll
Want to take a stab at one of David J. Kahn’s challenging crosswords? Pick up your pencil and give “SUmmer Crossword” a try. He created the puzzle with an SU theme exclusively for Syracuse University Magazine.
In the documentary film Wordplay, contestants in the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament are midway through the eight-puzzle ordeal that will determine the champion. Will Shortz, crossword editor for The New York Times and the tournament’s founder and director, introduces the fifth challenge—a puzzle by David J. Kahn ’63. At the mention of Kahn’s name, contestants groan, and Shortz gives voice to their worst fears: “This is a puzzle that’s gonna rip your heart out,” he announces cheerfully. And the fun begins.
For Kahn, life is just one puzzle after another. He’s been solving crosswords since he was 11 and constructing them for the past 12 years. His puzzles have appeared in the Times and other newspapers, and he serves as a judge for Shortz’s annual tournament. Kahn credits Shortz, who rejected his first few submissions, with helping him develop his puzzle-making skills. And his “quirky, creative” style suits the Times, which favors challenging puzzle-within-a-puzzle crosswords over the conventional brainteasers of the past. “Before Will came to the Times, you would see words you would never use in conversation—real esoteric stuff that you might find in Webster’s third-edition dictionary, but nowhere else,” Kahn says. Today’s top puzzle makers, he says, rely on common words and phrases for answers. The difficult part is interpreting the clues. Take, for example, “Technophobe’s Delight,” a puzzle based on an idea that struck him during a lecture by former TV anchor Tom Brokaw. “He was talking about how some people are technologically challenged,” Kahn recalls, “and he said, ‘Some people think “hard drive” means a difficult commute into Manhattan.’ Everyone laughed. And I turned to my wife and said, ‘Bull’s-eye. That’s a puzzle right there.’” A few months later, “Technophobe’s Delight” appeared in the Times. The themed clues were computer terms, and the answers were common words or phrases. Among the clues: hard drive (answer: Tiger’s tee shot); floppy disk (Frisbee); and digital monitor (manicurist). The puzzle was such a hit that then-President Clinton, a crossword fan, read excerpts during a technology conference. “That was really a kick,” Kahn says.
Coming up with a good theme is the hardest part of creating a puzzle, Kahn says, and inspiration can come from anywhere—billboards, TV, random conversation. Of his 100-plus Times puzzles, favorites include “Green Eggs and Hamlet,” a bit of Shakespearean silliness á la Dr. Seuss; and “Drawing Power,” a crossword tribute to the late caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. In a bonus feature on the Wordplay DVD, “Drawing Power” is included in “Five Unforgettable Puzzles,” and Shortz talks about its creator. “What I love about David’s work is, first of all, the brilliance of his themes. He takes these clever, unusual ideas, and he carries them to their extreme. He comes up with things you don’t think could possibly be done, and then he pulls it off with panache.”
In recent years, Kahn, a consulting actuary who majored in math at the College of Arts and Sciences, has expanded his hobby into new directions, creating a puzzle for the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library and two for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary. His third book, Sit and Solve Movie Crosswords, is due out this fall.
What’s behind this fascination with crosswords? “I like math,” he says. “I like words. I like letters. I like putting things together. And I like the fact that you can solve the puzzle and, once you’re done, know definitely that it’s correct.”