WILL SHORTZ IS the crossword editor of The New York Times and America's wordplay laureate, a man who sees the phrase Spot remover and thinks dogcatcher. Of all the crossword clues Shortz has written in four decades of professional puzzling, his favorite is IT TURNS INTO A DIFFERENT STORY. The answer: SPIRAL STAIRCASE.
And though he's the in-house puzzle master at National Public Radio and remains "the Errol Flynn of crosswording"—as Jon Stewart once called him, in a nod to sword-crossing—Shortz is also our nation's foremost ambassador for another kind of play. The clue: IT MAKES WILL SHORTZ CHANGE INTO GYM SHORTS. The answer: PING-PONG.
Shortz, 62, has played table tennis every day since Oct. 3, 2012, when he was forced to skip after arriving at a table tennis club in Croatia only to find that it had closed early. Previously, he hadn't missed a day since Christmas of 2011. "Crosswords are my profession," he says. "I don't want to do them when I'm not working—well, sometimes I do—but table tennis is something else that's a little obsessive."
A little? Shortz has played table tennis in all but two of the United States—that's 48 Down, in crossword parlance—and needs only Hawaii and Mississippi to complete the grid. In January, after a speaking engagement in Sun Valley, Idaho, Shortz drove 10½ hours to play in Casper, Wyo. Last October, when he accepted an award at Indiana University—where he had majored in Enigmatology—his alma mater set up a Ping-Pong table in the library to preserve his streak.
On this winter Wednesday night Shortz is in the magnificent club he owns, the 14,000-square-foot Westchester Table Tennis Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., presiding over its 19 tables like a table tennis Toots Shor. "Except some restaurants make money," Shortz says. "Our club doesn't."
Rather, the club gives him a steady supply of opponents every night until 11, after which he returns home to dream up puzzles. The other night, as he lay in bed, he thought of "a two-syllable word that's a U.S. city, but reverse the syllables phonetically and it's an NBA charge." After an agonizing silence, Shortz says, "Phoenix and Knicks fee."
His club's 170 members come from 25 nations and are nearly all ages. At its highest level tournament table tennis is contested by an astonishing variety of humankind. In the final of the U.S. Open last July, a 44-year-old man defeated a 15-year-old boy. "I have consistently lost to nine-year-olds," says Gordon Kaye, 46, the new CEO of USA Table Tennis. "It's really infuriating but also really cool."
This is not how they develop players in China, winner of 24 of the 28 Olympic table tennis gold medals. Shortz tells the story of Kai Zhang. One day a man walked into a kindergarten in Beijing, selected Kai from his desk and sent him to a special school to play table tennis. Advancing to another school, Kai played table tennis exclusively for five years, without academic studies, in the slim hope of making the national team or—more likely—becoming a trainer. "Which is not much of a life," Shortz says.
But wait: It turns into a different story. Zhang's parents, through a friend in the U.S., sent their son to live in New York City. Shortz became his legal guardian. The 17-year-old now gets straight A's in math at Pleasantville High. He plays table tennis at his leisure at the Westchester Table Tennis Center and is the No. 7--ranked player in America under 18. "You lose the love if you are working at it every day, 10 hours, eating and sleeping table tennis," says Kai, his smile revealing his braces. "This feels like my dream."
All around him, Ping-Pong balls are bouncing with a champagne-bubble happiness. The club seems carbonated, and so does Shortz, who this month will host the 38th-annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn. "Some know me only for crosswords, and some know me only for table tennis," he says, rallying with the club's Barbadian teaching pro, Robert Roberts. "And then there's a small group who know me only for Sudoku." But that's another spiral staircase.
The clue: It makes Will Shortz change into gym shorts. The answer: table tennis, another pastime for which America's crossword laureate is our foremost ambassador.
Ping-Pong or crosswords—what's your preferred pastime?
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DAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED