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Puzzle Group Draws Up Crosswords to Tease NY Times Readers' Brains

By Emily Frost | January 6, 2014 7:37am
 The group of seniors are part of an Upper West Side class that works on crossword puzzle construction. 
Senior Puzzle Constructors Find Success in the New York Times
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UPPER WEST SIDE — A group of crossword fans is puzzling the city, drawing up brain teasers that are being used to test readers of The New York Times.

The half-dozen seniors meet weekly to draw up puzzles as part of the Jewish Association Serving the Aging's Upper West Side class "Get a Clue! A Comprehensive Course on Crossword Construction."

Their creations are submitted to Will Shortz's famed New York Times section, which gets roughly 100 submissions each week. Several have now been published.

Dan Chall, 61, from Jersey City, became addicted to crosswords while commuting into the city from Jersey City in the '80s. He's now had two of his puzzles published in the Times.

Puzzle construction "is a lot of fun, and it’s a way to take another step if you like crosswords," he said.

"It’s not work, it’s all fun."

The crossword creation class, which meets during the spring and fall at John Jay College on the Upper West Side, is led by Shortz disciple Ian Livengood, 30, who spent a year working for the puzzler.

He said a successful crossword takes a substantial amount of work from figuring out the spacing of letters to creating clues.

"It’s more of an art than a science," Livengood said.

Class members took particular pride in their most recent conquest: placing a puzzle in a Friday slot on Dec. 27. Typically the difficulty of the New York Times puzzle increases as the week progresses, with the hardest one published on Saturday, Livengood said.
After seeing the byline "J.A.S.A. Crossword Class" in the paper, the thrilled members immediately go to see the reaction within the robust online puzzler community, they said. 

"One of the reviews said that Ian’s and his students' puzzles are really clean," said Carol Schachter, 69, a class member who lives in Gramercy.

"Our class is kind of like hot shots, or at least we like to think we are," she added. 

It helps immensely that Livengood knows what Shortz likes, having worked as his assistant for a year before departing for Penny Press, where he is a puzzle editor, Schachter explained. 

"When you’re solving a puzzle and you get that 'aha' moment, that’s a pretty rewarding experience," Livengood said. "It’s a good overall euphoric feeling."

Though crossword puzzles are building a more youthful following, they're still gaining older fans because of the alleged benefits for the mind, Livengood said.

But, for Chall, the health benefits are not his focus. 

"It’s supposedly good for the brain and I’ve heard different things about health benefits, but that’s not really why I do it," he said. "I do it because I enjoy it so much."

Part of his love is the teamwork in the classroom.

"Ideas can generate other kinds of ideas. It’s brainstorming and collaboration that work really well in this context," he said. 

And then there's the collective pride in a job well done. 

"People are proud of me. They’re happy for me," Schachter said. "That course is the best thing."

Those interested in registering for the 2014 Spring semester can attend JASA’s annual Open House on Sunday, February 9 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at John Jay College, North Hall, 445 West 59th St.