Four-Letter Word for Puzzling Guest at Clinton Bash

By Aimee Berg

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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Jewish icons such as Shimon Peres and Barbra Streisand were easy to find among the raincoat-clad crowd last week, when 30,000 people gathered for the dedication of the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark. But it would have taken a more discerning eye to spot David J. Kahn, even though his work has been fairly ubiquitous since the Clinton era.

Kahn, a 63-year-old grandfather of five, might not be a household name, but there’s a strong chance that his work drives you crazy every few weeks if you’re an unabashed crossword buff like the former president.

In crossword parlance, Kahn is a “constructor” — someone who creates the grids that tax hundreds of thousands of brains every day. And he’s one of the more prolific puzzle architects in the country: He has published more than a hundred crosswords in The New York Times and more than a dozen in the The Wall Street Journal. His work also has been featured in the finals at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a fiercely competitive annual event that crowns one grand champion among 500 solvers from around the world. This spring, Kahn published a compilation of baseball puzzles that prompted Hall of Fame pitcher and crossword addict Tom Seaver to write him a fan letter.

But his highest-profile assignment this year came from the Clinton library.

During Clinton’s eight years in office, he made at least three speeches that mentioned specific crossword puzzles, including one created by Kahn. In a nod to Clinton’s well-known hobby, the officials charged with orchestrating the library’s opening decided to commission a crossword to honor the occasion. They contacted Will Shortz, crossword editor of The New York Times, who tapped Kahn for the honor.

“In May, Will called me and said, ‘Of course, there’s no compensation for this, but there’s a good chance we’ll both be invited to the opening of the library.’ And I said, ‘When do I start?’”

“I was just going on vacation,” Kahn said, “so I wrote the puzzle on a cruise ship on the Ionian Sea near the Greek Islands.”

As Kahn was maturing as a constructor in the mid-1990s, Clinton was developing a reputation as an expert solver who could finish a puzzle in seven minutes or less — while talking on the phone! It seemed inevitable that the two clever minds would meet, but the foundation for Kahn’s presidential perk last week was largely due to a stroke of good timing.

In June 1997, two days before President Clinton was scheduled to deliver a speech about Internet commerce, The New York Times ran a grid by Kahn, titled, “Technophobe’s Delight.” In it, there were a dozen clues whose answers required literal definitions of high-tech terms. The answer for the clue “Floppy Disc,” for example, was “Frisbee”; the answer for “Hard Drive” was “Tiger’s Tee Shot”; the answer for “Digital Monitor” was “Manicurist.” The puzzle’s serendipitous timing enabled the president to weave Kahn’s creation into his introduction.

“I guess he needed laughs,” Kahn said, “so he took the puzzle to the news conference and started reading it.”

For all Kahn’s crossword accomplishment, constructing remains his avocation. He has not given up his 30-year career as an actuary or, for that matter, his neighborhood on New York City’s Upper West Side. It was there, a few years before his bar mitzvah, that Kahn was introduced to the Sunday Times’s puzzles by his uncle, Al Goldberg. (Kahn’s maternal grandmother, Fannie Zornberg, was such a relentless fund raiser for Hadassah that she became the first lay volunteer to have a New York group named after her.) Despite Kahn’s religious upbringing and his yen for word games, however, he says he has yet to construct a puzzle with a Yiddish theme –– though he has pledged to do one for the Forward.

Similarly, he never let crossword solving interfere with his Jewish education. “I think the rabbi would have frowned on it” had he tried to solve crossword puzzles during Sunday school, Kahn said.

While a student at the renowned High School of Music & Art, Kahn became an accomplished solver (and flutist). In 1963, he graduated from Syracuse University with a major in math — an area of expertise so common among the elite crossword constructors and solvers that it suggests the tasks might be more akin to engineering than to linguistics.

Kahn made his first puzzle on a whim in 1989, but he didn’t really flourish until 1993, when Shortz took over as crossword editor for The New York Times. From the outset, Shortz was receptive to new ideas. He favored clever and challenging themes over obscure and outmoded answers. But most of all, Shortz was so encouraging of his constructors that he became widely regarded as both a mentor and a mensch in the cruciverbalist community.

Kahn thrived in that environment, and now his puzzles are famous for their difficulty and devious themes.

When he needed a theme for his Clinton library puzzle, Kahn pulled up a lounge chair and began plumbing James Humes’s book, “Who Killed a President?” for interesting tidbits about the American presidencies. While taking notes, Kahn calculated word lengths to determine whether his thematic ideas would fit the diagonal symmetry of a 21-by-21-square grid. He doesn’t own a laptop, so Kahn was required, during his vacation cruise, to craft the puzzle the old-fashioned way, with graph paper and a pencil.

Right away, Shortz liked Kahn’s presidential theme, so Kahn proceeded to write answers on the grid and blacken the spaces between answers. Kahn began in the center, where he planned to put the puzzle’s distinctive design element. Next, he entered his long thematic answers.

After that, he scribbled down other words that would fit into the nexus. In one of his first (of four) drafts, he inadvertently wrote the word “intern” as an answer. “It happened to be a word that fit,” he explained, “but I quickly realized I didn’t want that in there.”

When Kahn returned to New York, he transferred his grid onto his computer, wrote the 144 clues and sent the grid to Shortz. After light editing, Shortz forwarded a blank version of the grid to three of his expert “testers,” who ensured the puzzle’s workability and checked for factual and typographical errors.

The final puzzle, called “From the Presidential Record Books,” is scheduled to run in the December 5 New York Times Magazine. Clinton’s solving time is expected to appear with the answers so that the rest of us can see how severely he was tested by Kahn’s creation, and so readers can find out how well they measure up against the former president.

As for Kahn, he claims to have plenty of material left over for another presidential crossword and says the theme would be easy if George W. Bush came calling.

“I’d just misspell all the words,” Kahn said.

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