For over 20 years, Will Shortz has been carefully editing those mind-twisting, memory-testing and sometimes incredibly frustrating crossword puzzles in The New York Times — which, let’s face it, some of us have yet to complete. And at 62, we think it’s safe to say he’s a fair bit sharper than the average person as the world’s only academically accredited puzzle master, AKA enigmatologist. How’s that for a crossword clue?
We had a chance to speak to the whiz himself to see if he could share a few tips for how the rest of us can keep our minds as razor sharp as his. Here’s what Shortz had to say.
1. Puzzle yourself.
“I will solve literally any type of puzzle,” Shortz told The Huffington Post. “Any mental activity is good for the brain but crosswords are particularly good because they exercise so many parts of the brain.” Clues can test your knowledge on practically anything — vocabulary, things you learned at school, current events, TV, movies and sports, to name a few. “Crosswords have a lot of deceptive clues, so you’re twisting your brain.” Forcing yourself to recall things from your memory is always a good thing.
2. Have fun.
Shortz says while there are many things that are said to be good for the brain — like learning another language, which some studies have shown helps slow mental aging — it’s important to find something you can actually like and stick with. “It can be taxing and it’s easy to give up. But with a crossword puzzle, it’s fun,” Shortz said. “There’s a positive reinforcement every time you finish a puzzle and you want to keep doing it. It’s nice to be engaged in an activity that you enjoy that you also know is good for you.”
3. Try Sudoku.
If crosswords aren’t your thing, Sudoku might be for you. Shortz has written several Sudoku books, full of the number puzzles that consist of a 9-by-9 grid, further organized into nine equal boxes. Each box much contain each digit, one through nine, as must each column and row, without repeats. It may sound puzzling, but that’s the point.
“Sudoku is different. You don’t test your knowledge. Instead, it’s a game of logic, but you are again exercising your brain in a logical way and you’re also testing your carefulness and observation,” he said. “If you make a mistake in a Sudoku puzzle and continue your logic based on a mistake, eventually you find your error and you don’t know where the mistake was. It’s very frustrating.” He’s right. The puzzles can be maddeningly difficult at a more advanced level, but making a mistake is the worst. That’s why it’s important to pay close attention throughout.
4. Exercise your body too.
Besides his passion for word and number games, you may not know that Shortz is an avid table tennis player and owns and helps run a table tennis center in Pleasantville, New York. “Table tennis is particularly good because, again, it involves so many parts of the brain,” he said. “It’s a fast-paced sport — it’s been called ‘chess on speed,’ and it trains your body to perform instinctively.” In a heated game, you constantly have to revise your own game strategy based on your opponent, he added.
Shortz himself has been playing regularly for years. He says he’s played over a thousand days in a row and hasn’t missed a single session since 2012.
“A few years ago there was a brain expert at my house to talk about crosswords and the brain and I naively mentioned that crosswords exercise all parts of the brain. He corrected me and said, ‘Crosswords exercise most parts of the brain.’ Later on I mentioned table tennis and he said table tennis actually exercises every part of the brain that a crossword doesn’t … so between the two I get a full mental workout every day,” he said.
5. Challenge yourself.
You might imagine that doing the same task of editing and curating crossword puzzles for two decades might get mundane, but Shortz says every day is a challenge. “As an editor, I’m trying to come up with new ideas to entertain people in new ways,” he said. On average, half of the crossword clues you see are his own. “I’m always trying to come up with a fresh way to clue a familiar word … something to twist peoples’ brains in an amusing way.” It’s something that’s especially important as you get older, he says, as you slow down a bit. “I’m always learning something.”
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