Doing the New York Times Crossword every day is like cultural shorthand for someone being really smart. Not just “knows what they’re talking about” smart, like smart smart. Like, reads books for fun smart. Quotes ancient scholars when making a point smart. Knows poems that aren’t about farting or dicks smart.
But how smart do you really have to be to do it? Can’t you just figure out how they work, get good at crosswords and solve them all while still being a human idiot?
To someone that doesn’t do them, it can seem like a slick crossword-solver is a walking human encyclopedia, bursting with all the knowledge in the world. But then, sometimes an old person sees you use WhatsApp and thinks you’re basically Stephen Hawking. Is it about actual intelligence, or just learning a bunch of tricks?
There are definitely elements of both, according to Jeff Chen. Chen knows a hell of a lot about the New York Times Crossword — he has set it over 100 times and both solves and analyzes it daily, providing commentary and insight on the process at Xword Info. “You need to have some basic vocabulary and knowledge, but so much of solving crosswords is repetition,” Chen explains. “You’ll likely fail the first time you encounter a certain type of trick or entry. The second time is easier, the third time even more so, and by the tenth time, you’re finding yourself filling in an entry without needing a single crossing letter.”
Understanding how the puzzle works, for instance, will prove extremely helpful. The crossword generally has a theme linking the longest words in it. It also operates on a weekly schedule, increasing in difficulty from Monday to Saturday (with Thursdays occasionally going a bit weird) — on Sunday, the crossword is bigger but around the middle difficulty-wise. Monday’s puzzle is meant to be solvable by “anyone in America,” and up it goes. Clues are generally a couple of words long, and are a mixture of those that require a bit of lateral thinking and more straightforward filler to make the others doable. For instance, a recent NYT crossword clue was “Gold star,” with the answer SIMONE BILES — impossible without getting a few words criss-crossing it first. In another, the clue “Bearing small arms” had the answer TREX, i.e., T-rex — pretty much a joke. Fun! But there will also frequently be clues that don’t exactly seem like they require high-level smarts — knowing “Actor Benjamin of Law & Order” is BRATT isn’t, like, an ooh, look at how clever that guy is feat.
Some linguistic gymnastics will generally be required of the setter (and longtime NYT crossword editor Will Shortz) to make it all fit — tightly packed grids often involve shoehorning abbreviations, obscurities, initialisms and occasional luck-pushers into them. ETS, for instance, isn’t a word, but with the clue “Kept in Area 51, supposedly” it sort of is. (Nothing rude, though — in 2006, the inclusion of the word SCUMBAG drew dozens of complaints due to its occasional use as a synonym for condom.)
Then, of course, there are the really crazy ones. “They’ll sometimes go completely wacky,” says Alan Connor, crossword expert and author of The Crossword Century: 100 Years of Witty Wordplay, Ingenious Puzzles and Linguistic Mischief. “For instance, there was one recently where the final clue was ‘au pair,’ and a lot of the clues had ‘au’ in them, like ‘beaujolais’ or ‘nouveau,’ and when you got to them you had to write the “a” and the “u” in the same square [This puzzle from 2015 involves doing something similar with numbers and supposedly took solvers 14 times longer than usual]. And they go playful and jokey with definitions, like ‘Place that British women can’t stand going,’ which is LOO, or ‘Fits on a hard drive’ for ROADRAGE. ‘Die of cold’ — ICECUBE. To do the New York Times on a Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, you really have to think laterally.”
That said, Chen is confident anyone can eventually master the Gray Lady’s crossword with a bit of grit and dedication. “When I first started, I could barely finish a Tuesday puzzle,” he says. “After six months of intensive solving, I was regularly solving Thursdays. Well, mostly. Every time I hit a theme type I’d never encountered, I’d still grind to a halt and have to look up the answers. Breaking into Friday/Saturday was harder, but again, once I dove in, I failed less and less with time. It took me about five years to get to the point where I was confident I could solve any puzzle, given enough time.”
One thing to bear in mind is that Chen is really smart. However, another is that the puzzle is meant to be solved. “The mistake a lot of first-time setters make is to act as though their job is to be uncrackable,” says Connor. “Really, the job of a setter is to lose gracefully, otherwise it’s a pointless, joyless endeavor.” Shortz, who works extensively on every puzzle, has written, “The ideal is for you to be stressed to the limit and then finally break through and finish.”
Millions of people solve every NYT crossword, so doing so certainly doesn’t make you a Bond villain-type genius, set to take over the world. There are also different types of intelligence, some of which can never be tested by a pen-and-paper puzzle — plenty of people who solve the crossword every day might struggle with a real-world problem involving something like spatial reasoning, for instance.
However, the deeper you dive into the world of crosswords, the harder it is to dismiss being good at them as, well, just being good at them. Getting good at them involves constantly putting your linguistic skills, logic, reasoning ability and cultural knowledge to the test, and isn’t that… getting smarter?
It’s always a shame to question something and find out it’s exactly as it seems but, yes, if you can do the New York Times Crossword every day, you are probably pretty smart. Well done.