12:28pm

Mon May 9, 2011
Tech

How an English professor became the online king of the crossword

By day, Michael Sharp is a mild-mannered Binghamton University English professor. 

By night, he is the author one of the nation's most successful crossword puzzle blogs: Rex Parker.

Sharp remembers the exact word that finished off his first New York Times Sunday crossword, letting loose that just-finished-puzzle adrenaline rush: "re-up." 

Since that fateful day, sitting in the college cafeteria, Sharp has solved thousands of puzzles.  He's also become one of the world's most famous crossword puzzle bloggers, at the helm of Rex Parker Does the NYTimes Crossword Puzzle.

Sharp solves the puzzle daily.  And while some might be happy just to post their completed puzzle to brag about their accomplishment, Sharp takes it further.  He links to musical selections that are referenced in the puzzle, posts relevant YouTube videos, and writes commentary about the puzzle themes and clues.

In the world of crosswords, that makes Sharp something of a super-solver.  Here's a good point for a vocabulary lesson.  A "solver," is a person who does puzzles regularly.  "Constructors" make the puzzles.  And "crosswordese" are the obscure words, concepts, and catch phrases that you might never use in real life, but which are convenient for getting a constructor out of a tight spot.  Sharp gives an example.

"Aikido is one of the more popular martial arts in crosswords," he explains, "because [of] that A-I beginning and the weirdly placed K. It's only got two consonants in it. It's good stuff."

"Giddy"

Many of Sharp's readers find him when they're searching the web for the answer to the day's puzzle.  They come for the answers, and wind up staying for the personality.

One regular, Seth Grossinger, a data analyst from Minneapolis, says he talks regularly with other Rex Parker readers about clues and strategies.  When he goes on vacation and misses some of the action on the site, he logs on to catch up, even if he's already solved the puzzle.  He even exchanges Christmas cards with some of the commenters on the site.

It's a far cry from Grossinger's early crossword days.  He remembers the first time he finished the Saturday New York Times puzzle (which solvers like Sharp will tell you is actually much more difficult than the vaunted Sunday puzzle).

"I was walking a friend's dog, probably about five years ago, and I was carrying around the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle," Grossinger recalls.  

Finally a eureka moment came - he had a breakthrough and solved the puzzle.  And then, that was it.

"I was kind of giddy about it ... but I didn't really have anyone to talk to or tell about it," he laments.

Then, there was no one to tell.  Now, there's a whole community devoted to celebrating the big finish.

Cult of personality

The blog doesn't just offer a place for puzzlers to convene online though - it also offers them a way to bridge the generational divides between solvers and constructors.  Solvers who've been hacking away at puzzles for 60 years will bring more Cole Porter to the table - the newbie brings more Cee-Lo.

The conversation works the other way too, according to Amy Reynaldo, who started her own crossword blog, and actually wrote the book on how to solve the New York Times puzzle.  The blogs give constructors a chance to hear from their audience - what they liked, and what they didn't like.

"If [constructors] didn't do their best work, and they put in some stuff and [later] thought, 'yeah, I should have worked harder on that corner. That's not really very good' ... a whole lot of people are going to say, 'yeah that corner really sucked'."

Blogging has helped Sharp make a name for himself, and make inroads to publishing his own puzzles.  Just a few months ago he had his first puzzle in the New York Times.

For now though he's sticking with the blogging primarily.  As a constructor, he's just another name in the paper.

But on the blog, he's Rex Parker.  

Solve a puzzle with Rex Parker

When Sharp visited our studio, we handed him a newspaper and set him loose. You can hear him tackle a Friday Newsday crossword, and give some pointers on solving strategy.

You'll note that the audio file is about 12 minutes long.  We feel compelled to point out that Sharp's normal solve time runs between three and four minutes.  It's the explaining that he did for us neophytes that slowed him down.