I utterly adored this film, for so many reasons. First of all, any movie that has Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, and the Indigo Girls is a movie I’m going to see. Wordplay’s crossword-loving celebs are a bit of a hodgepodge, ranging from a Yankees pitcher (Mike Mussina) to a former U.S. Senator and failed presidential candidate (Bob Dole), but they all had something to say about crossword puzzles. Some of these insights are pretty facile, like Ken Burns solemnly intoning that New York is made of grids and full of boxes, as if that were somehow incredibly meaningful: “You know, it’s all about boxes. You live in a box, and you ride in a box to go to work in a box. Then we have this wonderful newspaper that’s boxy-shaped that has in it this page, which is my favorite page in the whole newspaper. And there are a set of boxes in which you kind of practice the wordplay of this particularly exquisite language.” First of all, calling the Times “boxy-shaped” is a bit of a stretch, and in any case, it’s not like crosswords are inspired by architecture or vice versa, so what’s your point? Plus, what annoying diction.
On the other hand, I found some of the comments pretty inspiring. I love Amy Ray relating crossword puzzles to songwriting, as an illustration that writer’s block isn’t real: if you just push and prod and stare at it long enough, something will come. Another one of my favorites was Bill Clinton using crosswords as a metaphor for knotty policy problems: “Sometimes you have to go at a problem the way I go at a complicated crossword puzzle…You start with what you know the answer to and you just build on it. Eventually you can unravel the whole puzzle… And I think a lot of difficult, complex problems are like that: you have to find some aspect of it you understand and build on it, until you can unravel the mystery that you’re trying to understand.” My God, I miss having an intelligent President.
As fun as the celebrities were, though, they were well outshone by the film’s other cast of characters, contestants at the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I’m not going to try to explain this group here — they’re represented quite well at the website, and of course in the movie itself, which you all should go see right this minute. What I will say is that I love love love these people. I mean, my heart just bursts with love for these people as I listen to them. I’m not a crossword fanatic, but these people are a part of my tribe. I identify strongly with their linguistic fascination, and their predilection for solving things. I relate to having interests, obsessions even, that are poorly understood by the world at large. I deeply appreciate the sense of fellowship and esprit de corps they display, even in heated competition — a great example of this from the movie is when Trip Payne, one of the contestants, approaches the judges about a scoring error… in another player’s favor. Payne wants to win, of course, but values the integrity and fun of the competition much more highly. That’s the kind of competitor I always strive to be. Plus, the other player was wearing a Trogdor t-shirt. Clearly, these are my people. There’s so much love between them — many of them make the point that Tournament people feel like family to them, and both inside and outside the competition their camaraderie is obvious. Many of them may not be the most socially skilled or the most beautiful people on the block, but so what? They’re easily the most interesting.
I have a couple of those “demented and sad, but social” groups in my own life, and during Wordplay I kept feeling reminded of the one geographically closest to me: the members of the Basement Bowl. A little history is in order here. I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder for most of two degrees, and I still work for the university system now. From 1968 to 1993, the CU Trivia Bowl was a yearly event on campus, and during the 70s and 80s it was a huge deal, CU’s biggest non-athletic event. In its heyday it drew crowds of over 2,500 people to a huge ballroom on campus. The Trivia Bowl, like the Crossword Puzzle Tournament, attracted a group of kindred spirits who forged close friendships and sometimes even marriages with each other. However, as the 90s rolled around, the Bowl waned in popularity, and it was finally cancelled in 1993. Since then, its history has been checkered — there were a couple of revivals held for charity by the Boulder Jaycees, and CU sponsored an ill-starred revival in 2001. There’s still a yearly Bowl at CU, but it’s now attached to a national organization called TRASH, and is a pale shadow of its former self, held in little conference rooms with no audience at all. However, the family still gathers. In the late 80s an enthusiastic trivia fan named Leonard Fahrni instituted the “Basement Bowl”, wherein he invited trivia enthusiast friends to gather in his basement and quiz each other, Trivia Bowl-style. It started out as practice for the main event, but has long since morphed into an affectionate clan gathering, taking place a few times a year.
I came late to the Trivia Bowl party. During my undergraduate years, my lack of free time conspired with my lack of a like-minded group to keep me at arm’s length. I finally entered in 1993, and was actually named “Rookie of the Year”. That’s kind of a sad title to win just before an event is cancelled for eight years. I didn’t hear about the charity matches, but in 2001 I assembled a team for CU’s revival. Since then, the Bowl itself has limped along but my team and I have been there every year, because frankly it’s a hell of a lot of fun no matter whether there’s an audience or not. During that time, I’ve gotten to know some of the Trivia Bowl family, and been invited to a couple of Basement Bowls. The feeling I get in that basement is the same one I saw on screen in Wordplay. It’s conviviality, companionship, and friendly competition. It’s family. It’s what happens when people meet year after year to do what they most love doing.
Some of the things I love doing make me feel like I should have been born ten years earlier. Here I am, listening to Stevie Nicks, hanging with the Trivia Bowl survivors, writing text adventure games. How cool it would have been to see the Rumours tour at 17, to play in the Trivia Bowl in the early 80s, then to go and write for Infocom? (Work with me here — this is a fantasy.) Instead I saw the Lindsey-less Tango In The Night tour at 17, played in the final year of the original Trivia Bowl, and write games that are played by maybe a few hundred people. I still love it all, but I wish I’d been able to join in the heyday of everything. Crossword puzzlers, on the other hand, don’t have to wish. Thanks to Wordplay, I think their heyday is just beginning.