Twenty Moves of Scrabble

with Brendan Emmett Quigley


Brendan Emmett Quigley hates Scrabble.

Because he is responsible for hundreds of my favorite crossword puzzles, both in Boston’s Weekly Dig and in the New York Times, I find this somewhat baffling. So, for our interview, I suggest coffee and a game of Scrabble. Of course. Here’s what he had to say over the course of twenty moves.

First move, me, TRAIL. 12 points.

Me: Why?! and how?! could you hate Scrabble?

BEQ: Because I can’t use all 26 letters of the alphabet at any given time. Because, unlike a crossword, I can’t use proper nouns. And because I feel pressure to always win. Like, I feel like I should come up with something better than BLIND. God, this is why I hate Scrabble.

First move, BEQ, BLIND: 8 points.

Me: Especially because all of your puzzles have such nice comprehensive themes, I kept trying to think of a theme for this interview, but I failed.

Second move, me, JAWS: 40 points.

BEQ: Well, we’re doing a theme: you’re playing a game of mediocre Scrabble with me. Mediocre, meaning I’m bad.

Second move, BEQ, JETTY: 32 points.

BEQ: A friend of mine who has written one of those small books, you know the 33 1/3 series about records? He’s working on a blog now, as well as a nonfiction book. But the thing is, I’ve been telling him: put your work up on the web. But he feels like his art is cheapened. And I’m like, that’s bullshit.

Third move, me, ROTTEN: 21 points.

Me: You know, I feel the internet is good for some things, and I feel that short fiction is one of them. Because the fact of the matter is that there isn’t any money in short fiction anyway. You just have to love it if you’re doing it.

Third move, BEQ, FENCE: 12 points.

Me: So tell me about making a crossword puzzle.

Fourth move, me, DEAF: 16 points.

BEQ: So, first you come up with a theme. Like, parts of a bicycle: “handlebar moustache,” “chain of fools.” And you have to use themed entries that are paired, because crosswords are symmetrical. So all of the themed entries have to be in pairs, or if you have three, for example, one goes in the middle….

Fourth move, BEQ, QUAKE: 17 points.

Me: (Really? QUAKE should be worth more than 17 points.)

BEQ: (Well, if you want to give me extra points for it, go ahead.) …then you place your themed entries in the puzzle and you put your black squares around them. And you put them where they give you the most flexibility. And it might be the kind of thing where, when you put the black squares on one side and it gives you nothing but wonderful possibilities, but the other side is just terrible. Then there are rules: the shortest answer has to be three letters; you try to keep the junk to a minimum; there has to be rotational symmetry; obviously, you can’t use the same entry twice. Then you fill in the rest. Once all those things are done, then you just made a crossword.

Me: Okay, okay. I’m going to do something fast and impressive. Oh! Is EF a word?

BEQ: Yes, possibly. Yes, EF is the sixth letter of the alphabet.

Fifth move, me, FOX: 44 points.

BEQ: Fuck.

Me: I feel like you’ve made that sound a lot easier than it is. I mean, do you use software? Like, do you start out filling it in by hand and then use software when you get stuck? Wow, I’m going to something terrible to you on the next move unless you block me.

Fifth move, BEQ, BLOTTY: 24 points

Me: I feel like your words look like more points then they’re actually worth.

BEQ: Yeah. So, I definitely use [software] as a tool. I also have a database of entries, I have a database of clues. But I’m always coming up with words that need to be in crosswords, so I make an effort to add them to my database. That’s where I try to start with a puzzle, with something fun, something new. Something I haven’t seen before. Novelty is big. That’s my big thing with crosswords: nowadays with all the software, all the technology, everybody’s got the same word list. Puzzles can have the samey feel.

Sixth move, me, SWIG: 33 points

BEQ: Okay.

Sixth move, BEQ, JURY: 26 points

Me: I think you just answered my next question, which was going to be: what do you look for in a crossword puzzle? Like, somebody else’s.

Seventh move, me, SHARK: 31 points

BEQ: Wow. Alright. Well… novelty, yeah. Humor. I mean, basically, just trying to do something different. I mean, it’s tough. Because like everything else, like what’s that phrase? “There’s only six stories in Hollywood”? Isn’t that what the cliche is? But we’re still making movies.

Seventh move, BEQ, ANIMIST: 36 points

BEQ: God I hate this guy.

Me: Which guy?

Eighth move, me, MINER: 15 points

BEQ: Billy Idol [who is playing on the stereo].

Eighth move, BEQ, MOJO: 13 points

BEQ: Jesus Christ, “Flesh for Fantasy”? An adult wrote this song, can you believe it?

Me: I’m just going to show you my letters so you understand what I have to work with…(The letters are: EENEEOO)

BEQ: [laughs] WOW. That’s fun stuff. Here’s some Crosswordese for you: there’s a god whose name is “Eononoee.” I don’t know why I know this shit.

Ninth move, me, KEEN: 16 points

Me: That’s valuable information, actually.

Ninth move, BEQ, FORAGE: 30 points.

Me: So who are some of your favorite puzzle writers?

Tenth move, me, MOON: 25 points.

BEQ: Geez, the list is huge. I go through phases: Merl Reagle’s awesome. Frank Longo’s awesome. Elizabeth Gorski always makes amazing puzzles. Patrick Berry–I call him the “Crossword Jesus.” It’s tough to pick a winner. I’m afraid all of my friends are going to read this article and say, like, Goddammit! Why didn’t you name me?! It’d probably be easier–and you’ll never get this out of me–to say people I don’t like, but we’re not even gonna go there.

Tenth move, BEQ, HAVEN: 22 points.

Me: No, I won’t ask. So, what important advice do you have for people who are interested in doing this for a living, who are just starting out?

BEQ: Well, it’s no different than any other career: basically, do it every day. Talk to people who are doing it. It’s just something you gotta want to do. My friends who write, write everyday. My friends who play music, do music everyday. My friends who are in acting are acting everyday. I would solve crosswords everyday. It’s a tough thing because it’s such a small community. It’s not like it’s, you know, if you want to be some kind of performer, you go to a city where there are troupes or whatever, or bands, and try to work your way in. This is a really small community.

Me: In Boston?

BEQ: No, nationwide. I mean, there might be 150 people total. So it’s really tough to get into a situation where you can be talking about it all the time. But on the other hand, this is what’s so amazing, is that the internet has really breathed new life into puzzles. A lot of people are bemoaning the death of newspapers, like, where’s the crossword going? And I’m going to counter with, like, I think the internet has opened up puzzles entirely. Not just because I’m doing it on the web, but, I mean, we could go on the internet right now and get the LA Times, the New York Times, The Onion…

Me: Yeah, I’ve got an app on my iPhone…

BEQ: There you go. Exactly. It doesn’t just have to be the U.S. You could do The London Guardian, if you speak French, do La Monde! And, I mean, it’s open to everyone now. And there are blogs. When I started off, it was very solitary. Basically, when I first talked to Will (Shortz), you know, he didn’t email responses. This is the mid-nineties. But nowadays, Jesus, you just online and IM people in Georgia, in New York, and LA. And so, now, because of that, I can talk about crosswords all the time. I can’t imagine not using the internet, but that’s the thing: it wasn’t that long ago!

Me: I know it’s insane.

BEQ: Yeah, I mean, the internet is where I find most of my clues. You know, I just hop on Google. You know, if I need to come up with a new clue for “Rachel”, I do a search and oh, you know, “Rachel” is supposedly one of the women that Tiger Woods is fooling around with. So I do it that way. I don’t think you’re famous enough yet [to come up in a Google search] but, you know, give it time. So that’s a resource. And you know, there are search engines where you can type in letter patterns, and they’ll do these searches and come back with everything. Everything that would fit that pattern. I mean, that was inconceivable…when I started off, if I knew that would be possible, my mind would be blown! My mind is blown now anyway. The internet is essential as a tool.

Me: So maybe this is the last question: if not this, what would you be doing? In a world without crossword puzzles, where would Brendan Emmett Quigley be?

BEQ: It’s weird, because I’ve always done puzzles. Like, when I was in kindergarten and they gave big 11×17 pieces of paper and said, “Now go to town. Draw whatever you want.” Girls drew houses and unicorns and shit, and boys drew, like, tanks, and blowing up shit. Dinosaurs. Me and my buddy John Glickman drew mazes. We were trying to come up with the most ludicrous labyrinths. We were like six years old. These were diabolical mazes for six year olds. And so I started puzzle making right out of the gate. I was always interested in gamey stuff.

Me: So, basically, if you weren’t making crosswords, you’d be designing labyrinths, is what you’re saying.

BEQ: I have no idea.

And there you have it, folks.


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