‘Led a Puzzling Life.’ Six Letters. Third One is an ‘o’ and Last One is a ‘z.’

Will Shortz is a two-sport athlete.

Table tennis and crossword puzzles.

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So naturally Shortz is the perfect subject for a segment Tuesday on HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.

This edition of Real Sports, which airs at 10 p.m. ET, also includes a powerful segment on what’s happening and not happening in the aftermath of the billion-dollar concussion settlement between the National Football League and injured former players.

And it includes a moving interview with Royce White, a former first-round NBA draft pick who had to put his life back together after being sidelined by mental health issues. White now leads a campaign to bring mental health issues out of the shamed shadows.

So Real Sports, as usual, tackles serious and prickly subjects that don’t always get a lot of attention in sports media.

Happily, it does not diminish the importance of the concussion and mental health issues to say that it’s really cool to get a segment on the most famous crossword puzzle editor in America.

Shortz’s crossword puzzles, which run in the New York Times, are properly described here as the standard against which all newspaper puzzles are measured. They have millions of followers, many of whose obsession rivals Shortz’s own.

Shortz comes off here as the fanatic next door, a soft-spoken, rational-sounding fellow whose apartment just happens to have some 25,000 books on the subject of puzzles.

It also has random piles of puzzles, though none of this takes up so much space that Shortz is in any danger of showing up on Hoarders.

Gumbel walks viewers through the nuts and bolts of puzzle creation, much of which centers on thinking up the right clues. He gets some 75–100 unsolicited puzzles each week, he says, and while the ones he uses may require some word tweaking, his primary job is to punch up the clues.

The larger goal there, he explains, is to create misdirection, getting the reader to instinctively head down the wrong path before finding the right one.

Those who do best in this battle of verbal wits gather once a year for Shortz’s national crossword puzzle championship, which becomes the centerpiece of this Real Sports segment and is introduced as the Super Bowl of crossword puzzles.

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Some 700 people enter, and in the end a winner is crowned. The three finalists must complete the last puzzles on stage, working on large easels while the rest of the competitors watch. Erik Agard, this year’s winner, finishes the championship puzzle in less than five minutes.

Briefly waxing philosophical, Shortz suggests the appeal of crossword puzzles is that they offer a moment of control. A completed crossword puzzle, unlike almost everything else in the world, leaves no loose ends.


Besides puzzles, Shortz’s other consuming passion turns out to be table tennis, which he seems not to mind calling ping-pong.

He has played table tennis every day since Oct. 3, 2012, he says, wryly agreeing that perhaps he’s a bit obsessive about things he likes. He also organizes a table tennis tournament.

Table tennis, of course, is a certified sport, so Gumbel naturally asks whether crossword puzzles would also qualify.

Shortz, Agard and some puzzle fanatics here sort of chuckle at the question and say sure, why not.

The jackpot question, however, remains unanswered: If someone referred to crossword puzzles as a sport in the clue of a submitted puzzle, would Shortz let it go through?

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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