“Company whose jobs are often changing?”
Hints like these that help, though just as often leave stumped crossword puzzle solvers’ pencil erasers busy, have become part of a successful hobby for freshman and puzzle creator David Steinberg.
But he’s not trying to trick anyone. Well, maybe just a little, though he sticks strongly to his belief that common, interesting words are better than unrecognizable ones, like “anoa,” a small forest buffalo.
He proves this with the answer to his favorite clue: Jiffy Lube.
The “fresh” answer isn’t commonly used in crosswords, unlike shunned word “area,” which shows up a lot, he said.
“In the older New York Times crosswords there was no computer software. They tended to put a lot of things in there the average solver has never heard of,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing I try to avoid when I fill crossword puzzles. … There’s a real art to choosing things that are interesting.”
“Company whose jobs are often changing?” isn’t far off from Steinberg’s first draft, "Change maker?" New York Times Crossword Editor Will Shortz changed the original clue while editing one of Steinberg’s five crossword puzzles published in the paper.
“Shortz really improved it,” Steinberg said. “He made it a little less cryptic while still retaining the cleverness.”
In addition to his five puzzles published in the New York Times, the young puzzle master has also seen one appear in the Los Angeles Times and one accepted by Newsday. He’s had even more accepted, yet to be published. His most recent crossword is scheduled to appear April 10 in the Los Angeles Times.
At this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held March 16-18 in New York, Steinberg placed 10th among juniors and 356th overall out of about 600 passionate puzzlers. The 15-year-old Rancho Palos Verdes resident, who was the competition’s youngest participant, can’t claim the same title in the crossword-publishing world at the New York Times. Though those who are younger only have him beat by a number of months, Steinberg said.
Since he was first published at 14, Steinberg has spent hours creating crosswords. At first, he stayed away from computer programs that help build crossword puzzles, thinking that was cheating. He built his first 10 by hand, spending up to six hours creating just one puzzle.
Though he now uses programs to help, constructing the word games is still Steinberg’s favorite part.
“When you speed-solve, you can’t really pay attention to the puzzle’s theme,” he said. “It’s not really the same as constructing, when you can really be creative and think outside the box.”
For Steinberg, the black-and-white-checkered puzzles are individual works of art.
“There’s an art to designing the crosswords, there’s an art to placing the black squares,” he said. “The real art is in filling the crossword, plus making sure every single word is common and interesting.”
With a custom crossword website already gaining steam, Steinberg has also turned his hobby into a business.
He works on New York Times crosswords every day, but even this crossword connoisseur knows he can’t solve them all. The Sunday crossword, which isn’t actually the most difficult, has clues that “are about a Wednesday or Thursday level,” Steinberg said. Fridays present his toughest challenges.
“Sunday is my favorite day. It’s pretty much the perfect challenge for me,” he said. “I probably couldn’t solve my Friday puzzle I have in the New York Times if I hadn’t made it.”
Click here to view some of Steinberg's crossword puzzles.