Westchester is known as a place where a lot of smart people live, and it’s quite possible that our collective IQ as a county is just a tad higher because it is also the home of The New York Times’ legendary puzzle master, Will Shortz.
We caught up with the Pleasantville resident and founder of the Westchester Table Tennis Center, to fill in the blanks about his life in what may just be the most aptly named village in the county.
How long have you lived in Pleasantville?
I moved to Pleasantville in 1993, the same year I became puzzle editor of The New York Times. Before that, I lived in Forest Hills and Stamford.
What drew you to Pleasantville?
It’s convenient to New York City, without my actually having to live there. Having grown up on a farm in Indiana, I find New York City crowded and noisy. I like Pleasantville because it’s quiet and pretty, and it’s filled with interesting people. It’s upscale without being pretentious. I like owning a house with a yard and being able to walk to everything.
Do you have any favorite haunts in town?
I guess my favorite place in town is the “world famous” (their words) Pleasantville Diner. One of my annual visitors from the Netherlands calls it his favorite place to eat “in the world.” We always go the diner when he comes. They don’t have places like that in the Netherlands.
Do you ever use any Westchester locations in your puzzles?
Rye pops up once in a while. A few years ago, I clued it as “New York city with an amusement park that’s a National Historic Landmark.” Scarsdale has appeared twice with the clue “Kind of diet.” Dobbs Ferry has appeared twice, simply as “__ Ferry, N.Y.” In March, I clued “Taconic” as “New York’s longest parkway, with ‘the.’” As the Times crossword has a national audience, though, I try not to do anything that’s strictly of local interest.
Once, on NPR, I asked: “Name of a city, one of the largest in its state. Change one letter in it and rearrange the result to get the name of the state in which the city is located.” The answer was “Yonkers.” Change the “S” to a “W” and scramble the letters, you get “New York.” So cool!
An avid ping-pong player, Shortz owns the Westchester Table Tennis Center in Pleasantville, which hosts the largest monthly table tennis tournament in North America.
Photo courtesy of Will Shortz
Are there any recent or upcoming projects you are especially proud of, whether related to puzzles or the Westchester Table Tennis Center?
I recently hosted the 22nd annual Westchester Crossword Puzzle Contest. It’s a fun, low-key affair, using unpublished puzzles from the Times. I’ve been doing this since 1996. All the money raised goes to the Pleasantville Fund for Learning.
Regarding table tennis, my club hosts the largest monthly table tennis tournament in North America. It draws players from all over the globe. There are 18 events with $6,000 in prizes. First prize is $2,000. Since 2011 we’ve awarded more than half a million dollars.
Another ongoing event at the center that I’m very proud of is our Wednesday-night program for people with Parkinson’s. There’s a lot of evidence that ping-pong is particularly beneficial for combating Parkinson’s — delaying and reducing the symptoms. People living with Parkinson’s come from all over the county for this event.
Some think puzzles are created and filled in by “old” people with pencils. Do you find this to be true?
That may have been true at one time but not anymore. My sense is that the average age of Times crossword solvers now is somewhere in the 40s, and the average for contributors is probably in the upper 30s. I’ve published 39 teens since 1993. In the whole history of the Times crossword before me, only five teens are known to have had puzzles in the paper. Today’s audience is much younger and more diverse than ever.
As for pencil and paper, lots of people still do crosswords that way. I’m a pencil-and-paper guy. But more than half a million people now subscribe to the Times crossword online. An annual crossword subscription costs about $40. The crossword has become a significant source of income for the Times Company.