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Adam Wagner recently had his first crossword published in the Sunday New York Times. The Times’ digital puzzles editor, Sam Ezersky, said Wagner, seen here in his Oakland back yard, “makes a mean puzzle.” Credit: Amir Aziz

In college, Oaklander Adam Wagner had an atypical dual major: applied mathematics and literary arts.

“I like to use both sides of my brain,” he said.

And he did just that to great effect in constructing his first Sunday crossword puzzle for the New York Times on May 30, titled “Game Over.” The puzzle had a clever chess theme that involved kings that had been tipped over (checkmate), and it greatly impressed New York Times’ digital puzzles editor Sam Ezersky.

“It takes some serious ingenuity to actually make it work in a grid,” Ezersky said, adding that Wagner has “burst onto the scene,” and “makes a mean puzzle.” 

What exactly is it about the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, that’s published in the magazine and online, that makes it an icon of American culture? Ezersky mentions the large grid, the glossy page, and the fact that the whole family can participate in a tradition that’s been around for almost 80 years. No one actually knows how many people across the world play the Sunday Times’ crossword, but the number is easily in the millions. 

There is a myth that the Sunday puzzle is the most difficult of the week, but in fact the game becomes increasingly difficult throughout the week, with the easiest puzzle on Monday and the most difficult puzzle on Saturday. The Sunday crossword is typically intended to be as difficult as a Thursday puzzle. The Sunday puzzle is larger than the others — the standard daily crossword is 15 squares × 15 squares, while the Sunday crossword measures 21 squares × 21 squares.

The paper receives more than 200 puzzle submissions each week, according to Ezersky. New York Times Sunday crossword constructors are paid $1,500 for their first or second puzzles; $2,250 for their third or more; dailies pay $500/$750, following the formula.

Wagner has had a total of three puzzles published in the Times over a brief period of two months, but only one on Sunday. The Sunday puzzle is different, he said — an experience that Wagner likens to “playing a sports game under the lights.”

In addition to his crossword pursuits, Wagner has worked on comedy YouTube videos and been a writer for the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show. He is now a senior copywriter for a San Francisco ad agency, which also allows him to use both sides of his brain, including his “mathiness,” which he appreciates.

Wagner and his wife moved to Oakland from Los Angeles at the beginning of the pandemic to be closer to family in the Bay Area. Wagner found out his Sunday puzzle was accepted the same week his wife and he discovered they were expecting their first baby.

“For nine months, I wondered which would arrive into the world first,” he said. Baby debuted first, and Wagner has been solving daily puzzles aloud with son Miko every night since.

Wagner is also a member of the Oakland Beekeepers Club, and his hive and bees were delivered around the same time as the baby was born and the Sunday puzzle was published. Exhibiting the sort of wordplay humor that often defines crossword creators, Adam says he delivered one baby — and 20,000 Bay bees. 

Berkeley crossword maven has advice for budding constructors

Aimee Lucido, far right, says she constructs about 30 crosswords a year. She’s seen here with other constructors (l tor) Adam Wagner, Rich Proulx and Kate Hawkins. Credit: Talia Antell-Proulx

Wagner is not the only crossword constructor living in the East Bay to have had a crossword puzzle accepted for the Sunday New York Times. New Berkeley resident and veteran constructor Aimee Lucido had a Sunday grid accepted in October last year, but it has not yet been scheduled. Lucido has been building crossword puzzles for 11 years, since her sophomore year of college. She estimates she’s constructed between 150-200 puzzles over the years, averaging about 30 a year.

Lucido’s puzzles have been published not only in the daily New York Times, but also in The New Yorker, Zynga’s Crosswords With Friends and American Values Crossword Puzzles, an offshoot of The Onion.

When Lucido came onto the crossword scene, there was a growing movement to include more women in a field that had, until then, been dominated by older white men. She was offered opportunities, as well as mentors to guide her. She has often collaborated with longtime friend Ella Dershowitz, coming up with puzzles “that are so much cooler than either of us could do on our own.” Lucido was recently able to quit her day job, and focus on puzzles and authoring books for middle-schoolers. 

Lucido’s third book, as yet untitled, will be her first to include puzzles. 

 “The puzzles seem to find a way to seep into everything I do,” she said. Her advice to those wanting to get into the field? Solve a lot of puzzles from different sources, not just in the Times. Read crossword blogs. Pay attention to the language around you. She says there’s a woman-focused crossword publication, The Inkubator,  publishes twice-monthly crossword puzzles by women — “cis women, trans women, and woman-aligned constructors.” 

The pandemic spawned new crossword constructors

Relatively new crossword constructor and Oaklander Kate Hawkins, whose first published puzzle appeared in the daily New York Times last July, believes  “it’s the golden age of crosswords now,” noting that lots of people became constructors during the pandemic. 

Hawkins is really excited about the future of crosswords, and, echoing Lucido, said the New York Times juggernaut is far from being the only publisher out there. She has greatly benefited from mentorships with more experienced constructors, and has begun mentoring others herself. 

“We…need more diverse perspectives represented in crosswords — including sex, sexual orientation, race, and age.”

Kate Hawkins

“We understand that we need more diverse perspectives represented in crosswords — including sex, sexual orientation, race, and age — and a great place to break in is with a mentor,” she said. She suggests that newbies check out  the  Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, a Facebook group whose stated goal is “to rectify (crossword puzzle) inequity for women, people of color, and folks from other groups underrepresented in the puzzle world.” Hawkins encourages people to fill out the form to be matched with a seasoned puzzle master.  

A gathering of word nerds: babies, dogs and word jumbles

A big group of local “word nerds” pose for a photo in the Berkeley garden of veteran crossword constructor Rich Proulx. Credit: Talia Antell-Proulx

Last Saturday, Wagner, Hawkins, Lucido and a “couple of dozen” crossword constructors gathered at the Berkeley home of Rich Proulx, who has had many of his puzzles published in the daily New York Times. It was the first such regional gathering in years. 

Proulx planned a number of games for the group of word nerds. There were babies, dogs, and word jumbles. Collaborations were greatly encouraged, and Proulx says he’d be shocked if none were birthed at the party. It was Adam Wagner’s first time meeting fellow East Bay constructors, and Lucido was able to reunite with her mentor of many years ago, San Franciscan Andrea Carla Michaels, whom the New York Times called “one of the queens of Monday puzzles.” 

“Constructing puzzles can be a very solitary activity,” said Proulx. “That’s why you see more collaborations — because it’s nice to share this hobby.” To a person, all four of these East Bay puzzle constructors expressed their desire to support new voices entering the field.

The East Coast is currently considered the center of the crossword world, as well as being the site of all of its major conferences and tournaments. But the East Bay crossword community is growing, and wants you to know that you too can be “crossworthy” — with a little help from your friends.

C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, where she produced two regular series and ran San Francisco’s public access channel. She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.