Will Shortz picks up the microphone and the room is buzzing because it’s Will Shortz — he’s the puzzlemaster on NPR and the editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle and kind of a big deal here — but mostly because that means they’re about to get some puzzles. And on this Thursday night on the sixth floor of Boston’s Revere Hotel, there isn’t anyone who’s not hopelessly addicted to puzzles.
These 200-plus people are the best puzzle constructors and solvers anywhere. They came from all over the country to the annual convention of the National Puzzlers’ League. They see each other every year at this event, wherever it may be — this year is the ninth time it’s been held in Boston — then run off to win crossword titles and create incredible riddles. They return each year because it’s the most reliable place to find new puzzles that hurt.
Shortz comes around the room, handing out the first puzzles of the four-day convention, and there is a group geek-glow at the thought that they’re about to let their brain off a leash.
It’s a bit of an ice-breaker, called “Shifting Gears.” In it, they’re given four letters and a category, like fruits and vegetables. The goal is to come up with as many as possible fruits and vegetables that use those four letters. When it’s over and Shortz asks for a show of hands, most in the room have gotten most of them right.
The second round is where it picks up, 40 minutes with a partner for a puzzle called inCLUEded, where you take one letter from each word in the clue, from left to right, to form answers. For example, Adams is one of four correct answers for “Headstrong, hardy, stalwartly American President,” and there are five colors that work for “Crimson, viridian, emerald, vermilion, goldenrod, bronze…”
The room is now absorbed. They will go late into the night.
This sort of gathering has been going on since 1883, when what is now the National Puzzlers’ League held its first gathering in New York. It is the oldest puzzle organization in the world.
It has been in continuous operation since then, and primarily focuses on word play and word puzzles, which are created by members and distributed each month via The Enigma, a newsletter that is full of some of the most challenging and inventive new puzzles anywhere. Some of the best puzzles are held for the convention. The creators love to watch the best solvers get stumped.
The people who belong to this league delight in palindromes and cryptograms and in the fact that SCHOOLED contains the perfectly interlaced words SHOE and COLD, according to the organization’s website.
The puzzles they prize have a neatness to their solutions, and the care and craft used in creating them produce an “aha” feeling when a solver finds the key that turns the final lock. Some take hours or days to solve. Some have locks that never seem to turn.
At this level of puzzling, it is a tribe within a tribe, said Rick Rubenstein, a longtime member who helps create and run the programming at the convention. The 225 attendees this year are the most in its history, and many have been returning for years, so there’s a bit of a reunion vibe. But what really brings them together are the puzzles, to be with those who self-select for challenges that inflict mental torture.
The main puzzles are great, but what many say they really come for are the late nights in small groups working through a puzzle someone has brought. What’s been popular in recent years are “escape room”-type puzzles, which require solving a series of riddles to literally open a lock.
“What I love is that it’s egalitarian and accessible,” said Todd McClary, another longtime member who helps run the convention. “If you are willing and interested in puzzles, it doesn’t matter if you’re eight or 80.”
Being willing is the thing. Outside the main convention space, tables are filled with handout puzzles. One is a series of verses that must be solved while walking through the Public Garden. Another involves cryptic wordplay and is titled “The Hipster’s Guide to Boston Squares.” Each will make your brain bend back on itself.
The puzzling goes on through Saturday night, with an awards presentation on Sunday morning.Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.