Article from Delaware Today, June 1998

Crossword maker Bob Klahn is a puzzling character.

Go Ahead, Cross Me

By Mark R. Nardone

Photograph by Scott Hewitt

There was the happy groom to be on The Today Show, on the ABC Nightly News, on the Associated Press wire and in newspapers nationwide, explaining how he had proposed to his beloved through the New York Times daily crossword puzzle. There was his demure betrothed, explaining her befuddlement and elation. There was the Times' puzzle editor explaining how such a thing could come to be.

And there was Bob Klahn, at home in Wilmington, marveling over it all. It was his cleverness, his personal touch, his crossword, that made such a novel proposal -- and the ensuing attention -- all possible.

So why, when People magazine had the puzzle enlarged and turned into a tablecloth for a photo of the happy couple, did it neglect to include Klahn's byline as it appears in the Times?

Oh, how humble the constructor's station.

Bob Klahn, 54, will tell you that, when it comes to constructing special crosswords, he is a mere technician, a simple laborer. But make no mistake, the mild-mannered man with the quick smile and self-effacing sense of humor is a crossword beast. He has made great intellects grovel, made the leader of the free world take notice. No solver wants to feel the wrath of Klahn.

It was not always so. Klahn's first crossword was a four-by-four grid with four black squares in the middle. One of the clues was "Animal." The answer: BEAR. Heady stuff indeed for an 8-year-old.

By the age of 9 little Bobby was finding booboos in such august references as the World Book. Based on information in its text, he noticed that the year 2000 was listed incorrectly in its table of calendars as a common year. In our Gregorian calendar, centenary years divisible by 400 -- 2000, 2400, 2800 and so on -- are leap years. The editors wrote to thank "Bobby" for his acumen and explain the author's great embarrassment.

An auspicious start, and nothing less than should be expected from a child whose parents made him read everything -- which he did willingly. "Just about anything has always interested me," Klahn says. "But I didn't read nearly enough to suit my mother."

Poor eyesight made reading a chore for Bob. He had always enjoyed words and wordplay, but Klahn also became interested in other things. In elementary school he won a contest by drawing a book of birds for the Tennessee Organization of Garden Clubs. In fifth grade he began to play the cornet. He often joined a neighboring family for its weekly Monopoly session, and he always saved his 25-cent allowance for weeks to blow it all on a board game. Clue was a favorite. He spent many hours developing winning strategies.

By middle school, Klahn was becoming much more sophisticated in his puzzling. His first published crossword appeared in the school paper. A sample clue: Element whose atomic number is 97. "They didn't ask me to do another," Klahn says.

At Phillips Academy, Andover, Klahn studied Latin and French. At one point he played cornet in seven musical groups -- orchestra, dance band and so on. And while his peers were struggling through quadratic equations in algebra, he was venturing into plane geometry. Encouraged in part by winning a statewide math contest in 10th grade, Klahn entered Princeton University as a math major. "I wanted to be a mathematician," he says. "It turns out that I really didn't know what a mathematician did. I knew I liked to use math, but I didn't want to major in it."

Use it he would. After studying German at Princeton, he went to work in Berlin as a student in the summer of 1964. The program administrators set their charges up for immersion in the language, not for gainful employment and important work experience. Klahn was dissatisfied. When he complained about being under-utilized, his boss gave him a problem: Calculate the number of imperfections in the conducting plates of the company's industrial capacitors. Through basic trigonometry best explained by those who understand it (generally not faded English majors who write for small magazines), Klahn proved that the paper used to make the capacitors was defective. The big answer was written up in technical journals around the country, and Klahn impressed the boss enough to be awarded a small royalty on the sales of new and improved capacitors. (Klahn laughs. His payments totaled about $80 U.S.)

Klahn's favorite course at Princeton was Classical Harmony, where he would notate the parts while listening to Bach chorales. The notes Klahn couldn't hear he could deduce according to the principles of chord progression. "If you followed the rules, it only worked a couple ways," he says. As in all forms of Classical expression, there was order and a harmony of proportion. There was structure.

It was structure that fascinated Klahn when he discovered the computer. There was an IBM 7090 at Princeton, barely a step up from its vacuum-tube ancestors, and Klahn was intrigued. Teaching the computer to think required structure. But in those days, Klahn had to teach himself to teach the computer by reading its manual. There were no college courses. The computer was considered a mere tool, a thing of blue-collar utility. Klahn taught himself FORTRAN II. It was, he says, fun.

After school, Klahn went to work as a computer scientist for the DuPont Company and earned a master's degree in statistics from Villanova. He enjoyed the puzzles in Dover Publications and Martin Gardner's mind benders in Scientific American. He also won a few crossword construction contests. He played golf and, yearning to challenge himself with an instrument more complex than the cornet, studied piano for three weeks in 1975. (When neighbors two floors above his apartment started to complain, Klahn returned his new Yamaha to the store on the last possible day.)

In 1981, with an eye toward a supplemental retirement income, Klahn began collecting vocabulary for future puzzle making. With the help of a friend who had won several Scrabble championships, Klahn computerized The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. They figured out programming rules to generate all the inflections of every common Scrabble word and the dictionary was sent around the country. Then Klahn started pilfering the big dictionaries of American English that had been computerized by the military. "I've done crazy things like that all my life," Klahn says.

In 1991 he decided that the sum of his experience was pointing him toward big time crossword constructing.

Klahn shot for the top markets. To gauge the difficulty of clueing and get a feel for the market, he started solving. He's collected 9,000 puzzles on his home computer since then, and he's solved every one.

He also started to think of the puzzles as "sequences of cells in interlocking strings of orthogonal lattices." Crosswords aren't mathematical, in the strictest sense, Klahn says: "You'd call it deep structure."

Despite such lofty theories, despite the software he's developed for constructing (Klahn rejects commercial versions now available just about anywhere), building a crossword always comes down to trial and error. Some puzzles take an hour to build. One bear took 100.

"There's more power in discovering than inventing a crossword," Klahn says. "I look at things and ask, 'What does this multi-dimensional space look like?' I like to linger over things sometimes. Some you work on for hours, walk away from for months, then finish when the answer to the whole problem strikes you."

And despite the database of clues he's compiled, he still finds himself rifling through The Master Crossword Dictionary, The Random House Thesaurus of Slang, British English A to Zed and a host of other references. "The only time I have him to myself for some quality time," jokes his wife Sharon, "is when we're on vacation." (She takes care of the house and yard. Oh, she also supplies clues and themes when Bob gets stuck.)

Klahn's first published puzzle (excepting that unfortunate middle school affair) appeared in The News Journal in July 1992. It was titled "Delawareness." "By my standards now," Klahn says, "it was pathetic."

High standards are what Times crossword editor Will Shortz admires in Klahn. "You can almost see and taste and feel Bob's puzzles," Shortz says. He should know. It is said that Shortz was born to edit the Times crossword; he is the only person in the country to hold a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles. "I love puzzles with new ideas," he says, "and they don't come along very often."

Shortz and Klahn first met at a crossword contest in the early '70s. When Shortz took over at the Times in 1993, it wasn't long before he was buying Klahn's submissions. Now Klahn is the first person Shortz goes to when he needs another constructor's puzzle fixed or a special crossword made -- a proposal of marriage, for instance, the anniversary of VE Day, or a puzzle to commemorate the 50,000th issue of The Times; Klahn crossed "FIFTY THOUSANDTH" with "OFF TO A GOOD START."

"I emphasize quality with every last breath," Klahn says. "I like the word elegance." That means composing eye-pleasing grids that are symmetrical around the center, dreaming up fresh themes, using lively vocabulary, eschewing crosswordese, avoiding hackneyed clues and rejecting variant spellings (like EMEER, AMEER and AMIR). Among his many notable accomplishments, he has created a 15-by-15 grid with 14 answers of at least nine letters -- without using abbreviations, foreign words or partial phrases -- and a Sunday puzzle with the anagrams of five clues as answers. (The answer to "HIS NEW RANK'S SAME: TOP ACTOR," for example, was "TOM HANKS WINS REPEAT OSCAR.")

In crossword circles that pretty much makes Klahn a god. His creations have appeared in collections edited by the best puzzlers in the country, and he regularly makes puzzles for and judges major tournaments of cruciverbalists (that's some cruciverbalist's coinage for "crossword fan") every year.

Such is Klahn's clout that he started a Times puzzle for Groundhog Day with 1 Down instead of 1 Across, and placed the box for the initial letter of the answer alone above the first row of the grid. The key answer was PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL and, after realizing a misspelling would ruin his design, Klahn decided the wayward square was "cute," like the little rascal himself poking his head out of the grid that was his burrow. Even more amazing, Shortz agreed. Such a break from tradition didn't go over well with all solvers, and similar aberrations may never again appear in the venerable Times. Klahn can boast a first.

He can probably also boast that one of his puzzles was the first crossword referenced in a speech by an American president. A few days before his inauguration in 1997, President Clinton had been advanced Sunday's New York Times Magazine crossword, titled "Presidential Punditry." A whiz-bang crossword solver, Mr. Clinton was, according to press secretary Mike McCurry, far more interested in the puzzle that day than working on his inaugural address. No worry. When it came time to speak to the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Clinton's weekly exercise came in handy.

"[The Sunday paper] had a lot of nice things in it," he told the assembly, "an article about whether I believed anything."

Much laughter.

"But far more important, the Sunday crossword puzzle had as its theme Inaugurations, with several very clever clues. Like "Movie about a boy's Presidential aspirations?": "Hope Dreams" instead of "Hoop Dreams." You get it?

"But the most important clue in the whole thing was "Mathematical rules governing the Vice President's macarena?"

More laughter.

"And the answer was 'Al Gore rhythms.'"

Corny? Maybe. Maybe not. We've all seen the wooden Al's equally wooden attempts at terpsichorean mediocrity. But what cruciverbalist doesn't revel in a bit of corniness? Even for high-minded constructors like Klahn, it's all part of the fun.

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