Sunday June 24, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Tim Croce is a civil engineer by trade and a word-game enthusiast by choice.

But there's a place where his livelihood and his hobby intersect: crossword puzzles.

Not doing crosswords. Constructing them. For The New York Times.

A 28-year-old engineer for the city of Pittsfield, Croce has built 14 crosswords that have been published in The Times since March 2010, with the most recent appearing on June 2. He said 11 more crosswords he developed have been accepted by The Times and are awaiting publication. He says he's submitted 70 to 80.

"He's prolific," said Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times since 1993. "He sends me a lot of puzzles. Fourteen is pretty good."

Crossword puzzle aficionados refer to themselves as "cruciverbalists." (Cruci is from the Latin word for "cross," while a verbalist is someone who is good with words.) In that network, The Times is the Holy Grail of crossword puzzles. Get one crossword published in The Times and you're a hero. But 14?

That's rock-star territory.

"It was one of my goals," Croce said about having a crossword in The Times. "They're the granddaddy of them all. Everyone who wants a puzzle published wants one in The Times."

There's a reason The Times has published so many of Croce's compositions.

"Because they're good," Shortz said, adding that he receives 75 to 100 submissions a week.

Shortz said Croce's June 2 puzzle, which was published on a Saturday -- Times crosswords escalate in difficulty from Monday through the rest of the week -- contained nine 15-letter answers that stretched the entire grid of the puzzle.

"That's extremely difficult to do," Shortz said.

So how did Croce get to this level? The process started with a rejection.

A word-play enthusiast who began doing crosswords in kindergarten, Croce sent his first crossword to the Times 12 years ago, when he was a high school student in Torrington, Conn.

"I didn't hear back from them for quite a while," he said. "I guess you could say I got discouraged."

Croce waited until he was a student at the University of Connecticut before trying again. He received feedback from The Times this time, but it wasn't good.

"Looking back, they were admittedly not up to par," he said.

It wasn't until September 2008 that Croce received his first acceptance letter.

"I was very, very excited about it," he said. "I called everyone I knew and said, ‘I got one in!' "

Croce constructed crosswords with a pencil and graph paper until he found a computer program -- known as crossword compiler -- that helped him facilitate the process.

Croce’s most recent puzzle in The New York Times ran on June 2.
Croce’s most recent puzzle in The New York Times ran on June 2. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
That program includes a database of words that helps Croce piece together clues and answers.

To avoid redundancy, he uses another computer program that contains every clue in crosswords that have been published in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for the past several years.

"What makes a good puzzle is not necessarily an impressive construction, but having every answer clean," Croce said. "No quote-unquote ugly words or partial phrases. A lot of Scrab bly words and more unusual letters -- clues with a lot of word play and misdirection."

The New York Times publishes crosswords with and without themes (the theme puzzles run Mondays through Thursdays). Croce said The Times pays $200 for a puzzle published Mondays through Saturdays, and $1,000 for one on a Sunday.

Croce is "more of a themeless fan" but said the time he spends creating a crossword can vary. He said a puzzle he developed for The Eagle (above) took him five hours to create, "but that's pretty quick for one."

"Most of them I work on in fits and starts," he said. "In a themeless, if I work on it, I can sit down for an hour or two at a time. It will take anywhere from three days to a week if I'm really focused and if it comes together really well."

Croce said he consults his wife, Christine, for ideas on constructing crossword puzzles. The couple, who have been married for two years, met at UConn, where they were members of the marching band. Christine said she didn't know Tim was a word-play enthusiast until she spotted him working on a crossword on a computer in his dorm room.

"I love that he does this," she said. "It's creative."

"He was laid off twice in Connecticut because of the economy," she added. "I'm sure it took the stress out of that."

Tim slowly is converting Christine into playing word games. It started when she underwent major brain surgery three years ago, and Tim brought a book of crossword puzzles to her hospital room,

"He said, ‘Work these puzzles; it will help your memory,' " she said. "Ever since he brought the book with him, I've been getting into it. It's definitely helped with my memory."

"He's really good at it," she said. "I haven't finished one yet."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
TDobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6224.
On Twitter: @tonydobrow

Crossword facts

n Sunday puzzles began in The New York Times in 1942, daily puzzles in 1950. Mobile versions were created in 2008 and 2009. A version for Kindle Fire and Nook came out this year.

n The Sunday New York World became the first U.S. newspaper to publishes crosswords (1913). The puzzle originally was known as a "word-cross."

n Naomi Pasachoff of Williamstown has constructed crosswords that have been published in several places, including The Advocate and a New York Times Book of Crossword Puzzles.

n The Times crossword is syndicated to more than 300 newspapers and journals, including six U.S. college newspapers.

n The youngest person to have a crossword published in The Times is 14 years old.

-- Staff and news services