Thinking Inside the Box

Michael Berg got his start constructing crosswords in an ExCollege class. When the pandemic struck, he returned to making puzzles—and this time, publishers took notice

Barrel of monkeys.

With 50 across, blue streak.

Shapes up.

Ghost in the machine.

Knock me down with a feather.

If these clues, which come from The New York Times crossword puzzle of March 15, 2023, are leading you toward a common theme, then Michael Berg, A94, has accomplished his mission. If they haven’t, don’t worry—there are still lots of other paths to completing this particular grid, the first of Berg’s puzzles to appear in the Times.

For most freelance crossword constructors, having a puzzle published in the Times is an accomplishment akin to the chef’s Michelin star or the gymnast’s perfect 10. The acceptance rate for crosswords submitted to the newspaper rivals that of admission to the nation’s most selective colleges. Berg made the grade on his 14th try.

Creating crosswords became an avocation for Berg during the pandemic. But his first foray into being a cruciverbalist—a word coined in the ’70s meaning “one who makes crosswords”—came while he was an undergraduate. “My love of crosswords is so centrally connected to Tufts,” he says. Key to that was an Experimental College course he took his senior year taught by Marjorie Pedersen, J39, one of the few women who authored Times crosswords in the ’70s and ’80s.

“I think the most fun thing is coming up with the theme and trying to get it to work,” Berg says about his creative approach. “But close after that is just playing around with the clues and trying to put in something for everybody; little things that strike me that might also strike you. I feel like it’s a nice connection that you get to make with people.”

 A ‘Hump Day’ Success

Berg’s debut Times effort appeared on a Wednesday. Devotees know that the paper publishes its easiest puzzles on Mondays, with progressively harder puzzles as the week unfolds. (Berg admits he hadn’t built up the chops to finish a Saturday puzzle until he started doing them regularly in 2020.) 

He says he didn’t sit down with the idea of creating a Wednesday puzzle specifically. “I guess I always come up with the theme first and then usually when I have all the theme answers—the ‘theme set,’ as it’s called—I start to get a sense of where I think it might fit” as far as difficulty, he says.

Developing a theme set isn’t as simple as it might sound. There are rules. The theme answers must be in pairs of similar length, in corresponding spots within the puzzle’s weekday format of a 15-by-15 symmetrical grid. (So a six-letter answer in the upper left would be paired with a six-letter answer in the lower right). There’s also the question of whether to include a “revealer”—an answer somewhere in the lower-right quadrant that hints at a puzzle’s theme and makes it a little easier. Berg chose not to include a revealer in his published puzzle, which pushed it into Wednesday territory.

Once it was accepted, Times puzzle editors stepped in. That included asking him to change one of his themed answers, which they felt lacked that “aha!” moment. While they changed many of the clues, they eventually restored one—involving a subterranean mammal—that Berg lobbied hard for.

An Enjoyable Class

Berg says puzzles and wordplay have always fascinated him. “Anything that required a little creative thinking. I was a psychology major, and my favorite class was actually one called ‘Thinking,’ and it was all just these lateral thinking puzzles, and we had to understand them and use them.” Lateral thinking refers to using unlikely connections or indirect approaches to problem solving.

For three years at Tufts, Berg worked on the production end of The Tufts Daily. At that time, students in production used “a little blue editor pencil where you can mark things, but it doesn’t show up” on the printed pages, he says. So he began doing the Daily’s crossword puzzle with his blue editor’s pencil—“It was my own little fun.”

In Berg’s senior year, Pedersen, a professor emerita, offered a course on crossword construction through the ExCollege. “I was probably first in line for that class,” Berg says. “It was amazing. I loved every bit of it. I remember thinking: ‘How are we getting away with this? How are we getting half a credit for something so surely enjoyable?’”

“It wasn’t until years later that I realized what a big deal [Pedersen] was in the crossword puzzle world. She was one of the most published female authors of her time,” Berg says.

The assignment for the course was designing a Sunday Times puzzle. Nowadays, cruciverbalists have software that can help fill in nontheme words—it’s the part that comes next, writing the clues, that presents the most challenge now—but in the mid-’90s, that wasn’t an option. Today, it might take him an hour or two to develop a Sunday grid before writing the clues, “but back then, it took weeks,” Berg says. Of course, the internet wasn’t as robust then, either—puzzle makers relied almost entirely on reference books and printed material.

Pandemic Pastime

Berg went on to pursue a career in psychology, earning a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts. He is a professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts; his research focuses on social cognition and its connection to public health behaviors.

And as life went on after college, he fell in and out of the habit of doing crosswords puzzles. Then came 2020, and time began to take a different shape. “During the pandemic, I picked it up very heavily where I would do it every single day. And, you know, you really do get better over time,” he says. He began thinking about his old ExCollege course. “That course, it stuck with me,” he says. He began trying his hand at crossword construction again. By November 2020, he had submitted his first puzzle.

By this past summer, he had sold six puzzles to a syndicate called Universal Crosswords, which includes The Boston Globe among its clients. He got an acceptance from the Times after about two-and-a-half years of rejections.

Creating his own puzzles has only increased his enjoyment of solving other people’s puzzles, he says. “It heightens your appreciation for what the constructor had to accomplish to get something in there.” He mentioned a Sunday Times puzzle he had recently completed that involved combining alternating letters from the answers to two different clues, based on the concept of zipper merges on a highway. “It was this elaborate construction. And I look at that, and I know that it probably took them years to put that together.”

On the other hand, being in the puzzle biz, even just part time, steals a little of the surprise. “I’ve probably clued the top 1,000 common words a bunch of times,” he says. So when he recognizes where a clue is going, “it demystifies it a little.”

Revealer alert: If you’re planning to do Berg’s March 15 puzzle, don’t read any further. The theme was video and arcade games, and the clues refer to: Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, Tetris, Pacman, and Angry Birds.

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