Michael Sharp remembers exactly where he was when he finished his first New York Times Sunday crossword.
“The café in the center of my college campus. Malcolm and Chris and Sarah were there, see I remember all their names, and the last word I filled in was re-up, R-E-U-P, which is to sign up for another hitch in the army.”
Since then, Sharp guesses he’s solved several thousand more puzzles. He’s a professor of English at Binghamton University, and more to the point, the author behind the successful crossword puzzle blog, Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle. Rex Parker is Sharp’s alias. He calls himself the 31st greatest crossword solver in the universe.
Serious crossword puzzlers have a lingo. There are “solvers”, people who solve puzzles regularly. “Constructors” make puzzles. And there’s “crosswordese”: words that Sharp explains aren’t used commonly in real life but fit conveniently into a puzzle.
“Aikido is one of the more popular martial arts in crosswords”, Sharp explains, “because [of] that A-I beginning and the weirdly placed. It’s only got two consonants in it. It’s good stuff.”
Sharp does three or four crosswords a day. They take him three or four minutes each. But a blog post can take 45 minutes or an hour. On his blog, Sharp discusses the theme of the puzzle, posts pictures, a word of the day and sometimes music. The blog’s personality pulls in many readers who simply arrived from a web search for an answer to today’s puzzle.
One regular is Seth Grossinger, a data analyst from Minneapolis. His first memorable crossword was a Saturday puzzle, which both he and Sharp will tell you is actually more difficult than Sunday’s.
“I was walking a friends dog, probably about five years ago, and I was carrying around the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle and I finished solving it,” Grossinger recalls.
“I was kind of giddy about it. but I didn¿t really have anyone to talk to or tell about it.”
Now, Seth says, he talks regularly to other readers of Sharp’s blog about clues and solving strategies. He reads back through to see what’s been talked about when he’s on vacation. He even exchanges Christmas cards with other commenters who he’s never met.
Grossinger and Sharp say it’s a lot of fun to follow different readers and constructors. Someone who’s been doing the puzzle for sixty years brings more Cole Porter to the table and less Doctor Dre. Sharp, who grew up in the 1980s, likes to post video clips of his favorite cultural references when they turn up as clues: things like the old TV show Mork and Mindy.
Amy Reynaldo started a crossword blog herself and actually wrote the book, “How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.” She says the blogs aren’t just helpful for the audience. They’re reinforcement for puzzle constructors and the sport itself.
“Now if they didn’t do their best work and they put in some stuff and they really thought yeah, I should have worked harder on that corner. That’s not really very good. Well suddenly a whole lot of people are going to say, ‘yeah that corner really sucked.’”
The name Sharp’s made for himself blogging has helped him publish puzzles he’s written. He had his first puzzle in the New York Times a few months ago. But as a constructor, he’s just another name in the paper.
On the blog he’s Rex Parker, he’s running the whole show.