It’s Only Words, and Words Are All I Have… by
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Prompted By Brain Games

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Working on NY Times Sunday puzzle, family reunion 2012

I have always loved playing word games and doing crossword puzzles. But here’s the thing – to me they are social activities, done with other people. I don’t think it’s fun to do a crossword puzzle by myself, unless of course someone else is doing the same puzzle and we are competing to see who can finish it faster.

I love word games and crossword puzzles. But here's the thing - to me they are social activities, done with other people.

From the time I was pretty young, my mother and I would do the puzzles in the Sunday New York Times Magazine together. There were two puzzles on the page. The top one was a standard crossword puzzle, and the bottom one rotated among three different types: double-crostic, puns and anagrams, and diagramless. (I don’t know if those three are still in the Magazine these days, and a google search didn’t tell me.)

My mother’s favorite was the puns and anagrams, and once she taught me how to do it, it was my favorite too. To solve each clue, you either needed to figure out the pun it contained, or rearrange the letters of the clue into an anagram. It seemed that we both thought like the creaters of these puzzles, and we could usually solve them without too much trouble, especially when the two of us working together would play off each other’s ideas. Not quite as entertaining but also fun was the double-crostic, which involved writing the answers to clues on lines with numbers underneath them, and transferring those letters into a grid where they made a quote. Then, taking the first letter of each answer, you got the author and book title for the quote, so if you figured that out early on, you could work backwards. Together we could almost always complete those in the course of the day on Sunday. We only ever did the conventional puzzle at the top of the page if we finished the bottom puzzle relatively quickly, or else on the one week out of three when there was a diagramless, because who the heck knew how to do a puzzle when there was no grid to fill in? I still have no idea how to do a diagramless puzzle, although I suppose nowadays one could find instructions on the internet.

In my current life, while I only have a digital subscription to the Times, which does not include the Magazine, I can still do the regular crossword puzzle, both daily and Sunday, because they are printed in the Sacramento Bee, albeit a week later. As most people probably already know, the puzzles get gradually harder from Monday through Saturday. The Sunday puzzle is of only medium difficulty, but a lot bigger. I never bother with the Monday, Tuesday, or even Wednesday puzzles, they are just too easy to be fun. I actually like Thursday’s the best, because it generally has some kind of little trick to it, like two letters in one square, or words that wrap around from one side to the other. Once, every other line of the across clues needed to be written from right to left. It seems more witty, almost like the puns and anagrams. Then Friday and Saturday are just plain hard. My husband and I often start out with separate copies of the puzzle, then end up combining forces if we get stuck. But our systems are a little different – he likes to put in guesses, whereas for me, the first time through all the clues, I only like to put in words that I am sure of. If he were not interested in doing it, I don’t think I would bother. The fun is in the collaboration or competition as much as in solving the puzzle itself.

Another word game I like is Scrabble, although I got much more enthusiastic about it when I started playing it online rather than in person. I like the fact that online you don’t have to complete the entire game at one sitting, you can play as many moves, or as few, as you have time for that day. It can take as much as a week for me to finish a game, and that’s okay. I also like the variation called Words With Friends, and I play that one on my phone with friends all over the country. In both games there is a chat box, so you can have a conversation with the other person while you are playing. I only play with people I know, and it’s a nice way to keep in touch.


This picture is from our 2008 family reunion, playing a game called Take Two.  I am on the left in the pastel striped shirt. On my right is my mother, who is just watching, then, counterclockwise, my nephew, his sister, and my son. Standing between my son and me, also just watching, is my husband.

As you can perhaps tell from the picture, Take Two uses Scrabble tiles, but no board. All the tiles are placed face-down in the middle of the table and each player takes a certain number of starting tiles. From their starting tiles, each player tries to make a grid of connecting words without using each other’s grid or tiles. When someone has used all of those starting tiles, s/he shouts “take two” and every player takes two more tiles. This continues until all tiles have been taken. The person who has the fewest tiles left over is the winner. It’s fun in a different way from Scrabble or Words With Friends, because speed is emphasized. But it’s still the same basic principle of taking an assortment of letters and turning them into words.

All of the puzzles and games I like involve words. I have tried Sudoku, but I find it both difficult and boring. Even when I figure out which numbers go in which boxes, I feel no satisfaction from it. As I continue to look for ways to keep my brain sharp, it’s only words that will do it for me.



Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, I love that playing these games is a group activity for you. The social aspect sounds wonderful, as long as it isn’t TOO competitive, but all in good fun. Such wonderful memories of doing the Times crosswords with your mother; very special.

    I also like the idea of Scrabble on-line; going back to it (like I do with my writing, and John does with his jigsaw puzzles). Very civilized and probably better than the pressured way we play against one another. Makes me think I might even try. Thanks for all the good memories and ideas.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    As a fellow crossword puzzler, Suzy, I really enjoyed and obviously resonated to your story. Though I must admit that I much prefer doing the crossword puzzle solo. (The one exception was with my college girlfriend. But that was because that was as much about “together time” as solving it. Plus, she was much better than I was.) But your story makes clear that these word games can be not only brain sharpeners but truly social activities as well. A really interesting point.

    And, although I used to play a lot of Scrabble and really enjoyed it, I never knew of Take Two. So thanks for that. As I have a fancy Scrabble set my daughters gave me years ago, I may just try it this winter in an appropriately social distanced setting. I suspect I will enjoy it more than I have trying to re-learn backgammon, thanks to my wife’s very patient efforts, which I had thought might be my pandemic game of choice.

    And, as always, thanks for the great title. Though I’m not sure how long I can stand having a Bee Gees earworm.

    • Suzy says:

      I don’t think you could play Take Two in a socially distanced way, unless everyone wore gloves, because you are all taking tiles from the central pile. So probably not a good pandemic game. Thanks for reminding me of backgammon, I used to play a million years ago, but I’d forgotten all about it. Looks like one could play that online too. And sorry, but Bee Gees earworms are the best, IMHO!

  3. Thanx Suzy, I never heard of Take Two, will try it someday when things are normal again and friends can gather!

    Knowing I love Scrabble many friends invite me to play Words with Friends, yet somehow it doesn’t appeal and so I haven’t done it – but perhaps if I did it I’d love it too.

    On the NYTimes crossword page is a game that tests your logic called KenKen, if you don’t know it, give it a try!

    • Suzy says:

      Dana, I wonder why WWF doesn’t appeal to you, it’s really just Scrabble with a slightly different board layout (probably to avoid a copyright infringement suit), and a lot more 2-letter words. I think you would probably enjoy it, unless you are such a purist that the differences would annoy you.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, you are quite the puzzle maven. I’m in awe. Not my thing but my husband loves doing the Saturday NY Times, but he does it in pen. Which is weird to me, but that’s the way his mother taught him.

    • Suzy says:

      Wow, the Saturday NYT puzzle in pen! Does he also have a bottle of white-out handy? Or ko-rec-tape? My husband does the Times puzzle in pencil, but he likes to do the New York Magazine puzzle in pen. Then when he gets stuck, I have to white out his mistakes and fix them.

  5. I’ve decided there are two kinds of people, those that do crossword puzzles with others and those that only do them alone. You are clearly a much more social person than I am…but I already knew that. Still…Words with Friends does sound like fun!

    I’m with you on the Thursday NYT puzzle…love the wit and wordplay. I’m a fan of the rebus (where you can put more than one letter in a square) but some traditionalists absolutely hate them.

    Never heard of Take Two but I love it! Wondering if it works with just two players and, if so, I might just have to try it with Garth.

  6. Marian says:

    Love that you brought out the social vs individual aspect of all the puzzles, Suzy. While I’ve seen a lot of collaboration on jigsaw puzzles, my family always did crosswords individually, although I’m not above asking Dick for occasional help with really sports-nerdy clues. Now I really have to try the online Scrabble.

    • Suzy says:

      Just this morning, my husband and I did the NYT Sunday crossword sitting outside on our patio. It was a lovely way to spend time together, and we finished it much more easily than either of us could have done alone.
      He generally gets the sports/geography/science clues, I get the music/movies/theatre clues, and we confer on the rest.

  7. Risa Nye says:

    Try Letterpress! My favorite NYT puzzle is Split Decisions. It only comes out every so often in the Sunday magazine. It’s tough because there can be more than one answer that fits, but there is only one right answer. It makes my day when that puzzle appears! Sounds like you have a good puzzle partner–lucky you!

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