- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2017

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) - Here’s a puzzle for you: What’s the 12-letter name of the Bloomington seventh-grader who just became the youngest crossword constructor in New York Times history?

The answer: Daniel Larsen, a student at Jackson Creek Middle School. At 13 years and 4 months old, he breaks the record previously held by Arthur Bennett, who earned the title of youngest crossword constructor in 1969 at 13 years and 10 months of age.

Daniel’s puzzle appeared on page C3 of the Valentine’s Day edition of the New York Times. The Times’ crossword editor, Will Shortz, published an online column the same day declaring Daniel’s new title. And just days before, Daniel was crowned the regional champion speller of the 2017 IU Bee.

“Happening at the same time - he had an amazing week,” said Daniel’s father, Michael Larsen, with a laugh.

Michael and his wife, Ayelet Lindenstrauss-Larsen, are both professors in Indiana University’s math department. Daniel has a knack for math, too - when he spoke to reporters on Feb. 15, he was about to dash off to an American Mathematics Competition at the university.

But his great love lies with words. He was an avid Scrabble player and word square solver for years before picking up crosswords. He was around 11 when he started hovering as his father and 17-year-old sister, Anne, worked on the New York Times crossword puzzle together.

Soon Daniel was solving the puzzles alongside his father and sister. Not long after that, he decided to submit a puzzle of his own. Solving a crossword is one thing, he said, but creating his own grids was satisfying on a completely different level.

“It makes the whole thing worth it. You get frustrated sometimes, but that’s just part of it,” he said on Wednesday.

When Daniel’s father heard he was shooting to get a crossword published in the New York Times, Michael was encouraging, but realistic. According to the Times’ crossword editor, the Times gets an average of 75 submissions a week. But to help Daniel with his project, Michael wrote a simple computer program that helps him find words of the appropriate length with some of the right letters.

Then, Daniel took over, tweaking and adding to the program. For his 12th birthday, he asked for a more sophisticated word list to feed into the program to make more complicated puzzles.

“For someone who was learning how to program, it was a huge task of getting it debugged,” Michael said. “He spent day after day over the summer trying to debug it. It was a huge effort on his part. It was really quite an amazing thing.”

Shortz, an IU alum, wrote that such programs are often used by the puzzlemakers of today.

“Most crossword contributors nowadays use computer assistance like this - although the whole process is much more human-directed than you might think,” he wrote in his NYT column. A good crossword needs a good theme unifying many of the answers, a sort of overarching clue, he said.

Daniel’s published puzzle is inspired by things Elmer Fudd, the cartoon nemesis of Bugs Bunny, would say. Several of the clues are everyday phrases with a letter tweaked to mirror Fudd’s habit of confusing his r’s and i’s. Daniel’s favorite answer in the puzzle is an Elmer-ized version of the phrase “crack of dawn.”

Once he got the knack of things, Daniel started submitting puzzles in earnest, sometimes one a week. He was rejected eight times. Shortz’s assistant, Joel Fagliano, complimented the work Daniel sent in over the past year and offered constructive criticism, but ultimately, he declined each submission.

“He was disappointed, but I think he understood from the beginning that if he was going to do this, it was going to be a long process and he was going to have to try many times,” Michael said. “It just made him more determined to succeed.”

Daniel’s ninth puzzle piqued Shortz and Fagliano’s interest, but even then, it took several rounds of editing before it was ready to run. Between his drafts at the beginning of the process and the published crossword, Daniel, said he racked up about 50 versions of the same grid.

When Daniel’s family found out his puzzle was actually going to run, they were thrilled. Adding to the excitement, Shortz and Fagliano fast-tracked Daniel’s submission to make sure he made it under the wire to claim the youngest crossword creator title.

Now that he has met his lofty goal, Daniel said he will probably scale back the number of puzzles he submits to the Times. For a while, he was submitting one puzzle a week; now he thinks he’ll try for one a month, just because he enjoys the challenge. Soon, he’ll probably have another big project on the horizon, and after Saturday’s win at the regional spelling bee, he does have the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May to prepare for.

At any rate, he still has a puzzle or two in the mail, waiting for Shortz’s review. In Shortz’s column Tuesday, he wrote that he couldn’t wait to see more.

Whatever Daniel decides to do next, Michael said his family couldn’t be prouder of him. He had been afraid Daniel might give up after too many rejections. Instead, he showed himself what is possible with enough determination and perseverance.

“I remember when I was a kid also having the same idea (to submit a puzzle), but I didn’t know how I could do it,” Michael said. “Somehow, he thought he could do it, and he turned out to be right.”


Source: The (Bloomington) Herald-Times, https://bit.ly/2lc1lUK


Information from: The Herald Times, https://www.heraldtimesonline.com

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