Getting to know the Puzzlemaster, Will Shortz

“Let’s play a game.”

That’s how NPR’s Puzzlemaster Will Shortz often opens his weekly segment, inviting Weekend Edition Sunday listeners into a moment of wordplay and wit. As host, I admit I was skeptical about adding puzzles, not considering myself much of a game player. But Will’s spirit and dedication won me over.

In his subtle New York accent, Will makes puzzling sound fun, not frustrating. He meets you wherever you are, whether a novice just seeking the thrill of an “aha!” moment or a longtime fan parsing every cryptic clue with relish. His creativity seems to flow as boundless as the wind yet also follows a methodical rhythm, like a perfectly penned poem.

So in preparing to interview Will at his home in Pleasantville, New York, I decided to challenge myself with a puzzle game of sorts – guess the number of ping pong balls in a jar. Though off by a long shot, I now better grasped his father’s road trip game that first sparked Will’s passion. Conjuring something playful, memorable, and deceptively simple takes skill.

The All-American pastime this was not, however, once we arrived at Will’s pride and joy – the Westchester Table Tennis Center. Display cases boasted trophies from junior tournaments alongside recent shots of Willlunging, paddle in hand. Founded with a business partner in 2009, the club welcomes hardcore competitors along weekend warriors, equal opportunity fun seekers.

“I’ve played table tennis every day for the past 11 years,” Will shared. The sport keeps his mind limber andreaction time quick at 71. It also connects him to the community, teammatesand rivals alike relishing the bonds formed over friendly games. The key is keeping ego aside and focus on the flow. Time melts away when fully immersed in the motions.

Much like constructing a crossword, I imagined.

Though Will “retired” decades back from table tennis tournaments, he continues diligently perfecting his skills. The lifelong puzzler applies a similar tenacity in his day job – editor of The New York Times crossword and NPR’s Puzzlemaster since 1987. Rarely has Will missed a Sunday in 36 years of fresh, creative challenges for the listeners.

“It feels great coming up with new ideas every week,” he told me back at his home office, walls and shelves bursting with puzzle ephemera. “I love the people I come in contact with through puzzles.”

He fondly recalls his father, not often one for games, challenging the bored kids in the backseat on a road trip to guess the distance to the next peak. Adventure lurked around every corner of the wild West in young Will’s eyes. He discovered at an early age the power of gamification – the ability to transform any moment into playful competition, intellectual discovery or just good old fun.

In 8th grade, Will penned the ultimate gamer’s daydream when asked about career dreams: “professional puzzle maker.” Not exactly a common path for a star student headed to Indiana University in the early 1970s. Ever the boundary pusher, Willdesigned his own major called “enigmatology” – the study of puzzles. He produced a thesis on wordplay history and painted a vision of puzzle passion as vocation.

“I dreamed of churning out puzzles for $10 a pop from some attic apartment, blissfully flying under society’s radar,” Will recalled with a chuckle. Although destiny had grander plans in store, that spirit still motivates Will’s relentless innovation season after season.

Beyond clever themes and timely references, the most critical ingredient is spark – feeling that surge when an elusive answer reveals itself or nearly omitted letters slide perfectly into place. That’s the puzzler’s high, often flowing easiest when walls and worries fade away. Total presence in the moment, hands of a clock be damned.

A very familiar sensation, it turns out, to the one Will discovered in his 7th decade – the spark of new love when least expected.

Earlier this year, Will opened up publicly in The New Yorker about dating and falling hard for the first time with a man. Last summer, Will and his boyfriend said their vows surrounded by fellow puzzle lovers at the table tennis center that has become his second home and community hub.

Having come of age when being gay felt like ”playing on hard mode” socially, Willfocused on his passion work, friendships and some casual relationships over the decadeswithout entering serious romance. Yet crossing paths with his soulmate proved perfecttiming is sometimes the final hidden phrase that unlocks life’s deepest rewards.

“I have no regrets meeting him when I did,” Will said, visibly glowing. “It worked out perfectly.”

Corny as it sounds, that assurance echoed in my mind later while half-listening to Will’s latest Sunday puzzle with my morning coffee. I startled when hearing him announce the wedding news on-air and congratulate the newlyweds, “Will Shortz and his husband…”

Wait, was that THIS Will Shortz?

Somehow I had missed that sweet reveal to millions of loyal fans. But this moment unveiled the warm, courageous heart behind the genial genius I had come to admire this past year.

By boldly bringing his whole self to puzzles and the public alike after decades in the closet, Will reminds us that growth remains possible at any age. And finding one’s missing piece often appears when least expected, as if the inkling of answers arises subconsciously before intellectual justification.

With that timely wisdom, I gained renewed inspiration to embrace life’s interlocking surprises and delights. Moments of curiosity, playfulness and discovery wait around every corner, across kitchen tables and park benches alike….if only we pose the questions.

Even for info-jaded journalists like me, keeping an open, inquisitive spirit remains imperative, Will helped me recognize. There are always more themes to unpack, individuals to understand, truths to unveil.

As we wrapped our visit, I thanked Will for the puzzle solving spirit he brings to public radio – reminding us each week to nurture our inner child, find connections in apparent disconnects and have fun mingling minds with strangers who become friends.

“Let’s play again next week,” our Puzzlemaster chuckled in closing. And I look forward to many more rounds ahead.

You may listen to Will Shortz Weekly Podcast on NPR by visiting THIS page.

*Image Credit: NPR