Stanley Newman interview: A chat with the chief brain games mastermind

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Arkadium has long made classic games for grownups, making mobile games and web games for USA Today, AARP, The Washington Post, and MSN. And it recently announced that Stanley Newman joined the New York company as its first-ever Chief Brain Games Mastermind.

Newman has been the Crossword Editor for Newsday for 33 years, where he is recognized as an expert in customizing crosswords by level of difficulty. In the age of Wordle — a popular word game that spread on social media and was acquired by the New York Times — this could get very interesting.

His new job will be to work with Arkadium to create compelling word games spanning crosswords, word search, trivia, and more. And Arkadium now has access to his archive of award-winning games. That’s a lot of stuff, as Newman has filled more than 200 books with his puzzles and word games.

It will be interesting to see what kind of brain games Newman comes up with. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Stan Newman, Newsday's crossword puzzle creator, speaks about how puzzles can help keep the brain active and about the new book he has written at Barnes and Knoble bookstore on Wednesday, November 15, 2006 in Carle Place, New York.         em
Stan Newman, Newsday’s crossword puzzle creator, is now the top word and puzzle game mastermind at Arkadium.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me about your background?

Stanley Newman: I’ve been a puzzle professional now for more than a third of a century. My main gig is crossword editor for the Long Island newspaper, Newsday, and very many other things, such as author of more than 200 books. I could stop right there. I was the first winner of the US Open Crossword Championship. As a result of being able to solve crosswords quickly, I got into the business as a hobby, and it became my life’s work after I was involuntarily retired from Wall Street in the crash of the late ‘80s. I was there, but it was very brief.

GamesBeat: What’s your role going to be at Arkadium? What was interesting about doing this?

Newman: It would have to be interesting to me, because I pretty well created it. It went like this. After working with Arkadium on various small projects, the management of Arkadium was pleased with what I’d done for them. I got a call from Kenny and he asked me a question that you hope to get asked when you work for a living. “What will it take for you to be exclusive and provide all your skills and puzzle archive just to us?”

I told him what I most missed about the puzzle world, which was creating new things as part of a group with relevant expertise. Me being the puzzle guy, after doing every job there is in the puzzle world. Kenny created that for me. So how could I not be delighted with it.

GamesBeat: Day to day, then, what does that mean? Are you just creating puzzles?

Newman: Creating puzzles is just a small part of it. Really the main thing is to be present at the various meetings that discuss new projects and new priorities. I’m at the table, as they say, when we decide what’s worth doing. People present new possibilities to us, and not everything is worth great excitement, but a few things are. Things get put on schedules and regular meetings are made. People are allocated to projects, all kinds of people, from programmers and artists and so forth. Priorities are set.

I had to create my title. I don’t think there’s another person called a “chief brain games mastermind” anywhere. It was supposed to be attention-getting, and I think it’s serving that purpose. It’s been very fulfilling for the first month. We already have some new things being planned, as well as things that will involve me creating new material myself, some with assistance of good friends in the puzzle world. Nothing is finished yet and I can’t talk in great detail about the specifics, but I can assure you that before the year is out, there will be my fingerprints on more than one new Arkadium announcement.

GamesBeat: When did you make a transition into digital games from more on-paper games?

Newman: My first experience with digital games–not too many people have my breadth of experience. I just happened to be hired to run puzzles and games for Random House in 1993. I got to do whatever I thought was necessary. I discovered by 1994 that there were already crossword apps. I made friends with the maker of one. It was astonishing to see what crosswords could do online. From that first day I was thinking about what the internet, what a desktop could do for crosswords that you couldn’t do with pieces of paper.

Of course, the answers are many, and many of them are already present in solving apps, but there are quite a few things that haven’t been done. That’s near the top of my list, to get Arkadium incorporating these ideas into its already successful crossword apps, in terms of how many different crosswords there are, levels of difficulty and so forth. From 1994, that sounds like 27 years, doesn’t it? That’s a long time to be involved in online games.

GamesBeat: What sort of breadth of puzzle types do you focus on? Do you have a specialty?

Newman: Crosswords primarily, if only because that’s where the audience is. I’ve worked and been involved in many different kinds of crosswords. I can give a couple of quick examples. I’m the puzzle author for the AARP magazine, AARP being one of Arkadium’s clients, although my relationship with AARP predates Arkadium. The senior editor hired me about a year and a half ago to provide the monthly puzzle page. They were someone I knew from Reader’s Digest, for whom I did a book years ago. In that book were mazes and word searches and logic puzzles and so forth. My depth of understanding and expertise is certainly deepest for crosswords, but I have enough familiarity and enough experience in creating puzzles of most of those types so that I’m ready to provide some puzzler insight when these things come up in conversation.

GamesBeat: How have you seen the popularity of these puzzles in digital form? Is it at a peak right now?

Newman: There’s no question about it. You have to count the virological things of the last couple of years. But without question, we’re in a golden age of crosswords and puzzles. Puzzles are more varied. They’re more available to anyone, no matter how old you are or your subject of interest. Whether you like your puzzles easy or excruciatingly difficult, there’s a place to find them online.

When I got into the business it was pretty daunting. Puzzles were available online, but it wasn’t easy to find them. These days, anyone can become a puzzle author and publisher. Not everyone is a professional singer, even if they might think they are, but these days you can pay directly to the people who make the puzzles and provide them, and a lot of people are making decent, if mostly small livings out of directly providing puzzles to people who like those particular kinds of puzzles. That allows people to build niche markets with puzzles of all kinds. If that sort of thing had been available to me if I’d first gotten into the business, I might have gotten into a different place in the business altogether.

If you take a look at the New York Times, my dear friend Will Shortz, who’s responsible for me being in the business, he calls it a golden age. I’ve taken that home. More people are doing crosswords than ever, without question. And it’s because of the customization. There’s so much more available to anybody who wants to look. If you want crossword puzzles that are done in Scotland, you can do that. If you want them in Japanese, you can access Japanese puzzle markets as well. It’s extraordinary what’s available. There’s more than any human being could possibly do in a 24-hour day. You do have to decide what you like best and what you want to spend your time on.

Wordle

GamesBeat: I know the New York Times just bought Wordle as well. I wonder what your thoughts were on how that became popular.

Newman: Well, it became popular because it became popular. That sounds like a silly way to put it, but that’s really it. People posting their scores. It’s very hard to say there’s an original word game unlike anything that’s ever appeared before. Everything has its antecedents, even crosswords. They were found in the ruins of Pompeii, these word squares. When I went to a Venice souvenir shop, there it was, a plaster reproduction of that word square.

But as to why some things go viral and some things don’t? There are just certain things about it. You can do it quickly. Anybody can play. It’s constructed in such a way that if you can get the answer within the time limit, you’re proud of it and you want to share it with the world. Crosswords have never had that. I finished the New York Times crossword today, but not too many people are posting to brag about that. But when I started seeing so many of my friends on Facebook posting their Wordle scores, I had to ask myself what was going on. What was going on was an extraordinary popularity for something that started from nothing, because one guy wanted to have fun with his friends.

For it to get the attention of the New York Times is extraordinary. They obviously didn’t plunk down millions of dollars to just have it how it was. As to what they’re going to do with it, I’m not going to begin to guess. But clearly it fits in their long term plans. Already they’re taking some heat, as you would expect, around a social media-based success. They’re seeing how the bad goes with the good. I don’t envy that.

But here at Arkadium we take those sorts of things very seriously. My puzzles for Newsday, which appear on Arkadium as well–you want everybody to be happy. You want everyone to enjoy what they’re doing without anything that’s in the least bit depressing or controversial. I’ve lived by that my entire career, and Arkadium does as well.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting to see the pattern of big hits and copycats. Things like Scrabulous and Words with Friends.

Newman: There’s a Worldle already. In my first conversations with Arkadium, I already predicted that. There could be sports vocabulary, automobiles, take your choice. There will be plenty of space for copycats. Will it last? I’m not going to guess. I can’t predict the future. That’s a dangerous game, in the stock market or the puzzle world or anywhere else.

GamesBeat: When you see these flare-ups like this, it does seem like there’s a lot of creativity that happens within this puzzle sector. It gets reinvented periodically.

Newman: In genetics you have your mutations. Things change. Children can emulate their parents, but not necessarily in exact ways. I have a degree in mathematics, and I have a son who’s a CPA. Not exactly the same thing, but clearly there’s something genetic that happened from me to him. What’s that going to turn into? Who knows?

Did you know that crosswords were their own giant fad in the 1920s? The first three puzzle books published in the world by Simon and Schuster, when they were first going into business, hit the New York Times bestseller list. There were crossword songs, crossword Broadway shows, even crosswords on trains with a dictionary so you could look up words. The question is, what will be the residual level of interest once it settles down? And like I said, I can’t guess what that will be.

Daily Solitaire is one of Arkadium’s games.

GamesBeat: As far as where your own interests lie right now, what are you hoping to accomplish?

Newman: I’d like very much, in addition to enhancing–I hate to use the phrase “bells and whistles,” but what can you add to the existing apps to get attention? That’s already on Arkadium’s to-do list. I’d like to take crosswords into new directions, and other word puzzles and so forth. There’s so much you can do on a screen that you can’t do with a piece of paper. Everybody who’s in this business knows that, but I have the advantage of thinking about modern applications around crosswords for, like I said, more than a quarter of a century. I just haven’t had the opportunity to work with a company like Arkadium to make those things a reality. My wishes are going to be very much tempered by Arkadium’s realities, but there’s no doubt in my mind that at least one or two original things I’m concocting that Arkadium knows about are going to become reality.

Trivia, for example. Sure, there are trivia questions. Is it A, B, C, or D? You can play that online any place else, and maybe you’re going to see some of mine on Arkadium soon. But I have some other ways that I’m hoping to get trivia played on Arkadium that are just a bit different from what anyone else has done before.

GamesBeat: What’s interesting to me, I love to play the Uncharted video games. It’s a mixture of adventure, shooting, and puzzles. The puzzle part is always–you’re in a big physical space and you have to solve a puzzle to get out of it.

Newman: Right, like a virtual escape room. They’re pretty big still. I don’t know if they’ve hit their peak, but there are still plenty of them. Some of the most interesting puzzles that have been “invented” have been combinations of two kinds of puzzles that, when you put them together, they have some of the characteristics of each, but play very differently from the way they do individually. There are ways to do that, and once again, I’m thinking about all of these sorts of things.

GamesBeat: Why do we like puzzles so much?

Newman: That’s something I’m glad to answer. The first crossword editor for the New York Times was a lady who was there from the ‘40s to the ‘60s, Margaret Farrar. I got into the business just in time to get to know her in the ‘80s. In one of our conversations she said, “There’s something about a morning challenge on the way to work. If you can succeed in a little something before you get to work, it’s going to give you the right attitude for the rest of your day.”

I think that’s part of it. People who do puzzles like to do them, and no matter what puzzles you like, you want to get them done. You want to have what it takes, some knowledge and cleverness, be it with a crossword or a maze or part of a video game. There’s a feeling of satisfaction in a world where success doesn’t necessarily come that easily in one’s job. There’s a certain kind of real fulfillment you feel when you finish that.

Among the things I’ve taught in seminars, at everything from libraries to the Smithsonian, is about, how can you prove your skills? How can you apply the reasoning skills you use in puzzles to everyday situations? That’s one of the things I’ve always been interested in. I believe I’ll be able, for Arkadium, to present, in various forms, such as text and videos and so forth–I want not only to build our puzzle audience, but to make them feel even better about doing it by empowering them to get better at it.

GamesBeat: Sharpening your mind.

Newman: Exactly. There’s physical exercise and there’s mental exercise. Physical exercise everybody understands, whether you have a personal trainer or exercise videos, but it’s a little harder to describe what mental exercise is. I’m not going to deal with it now, but only to tell you that the similarities, I think–you’re letting your brain go to places it hasn’t been before to do a little bit of exertion. Exertion is related to exercise, of course. You have to strain your brain a little bit to get a mental benefit, just like you have to raise the weight that you’re lifting, or else you’re not progressing.

GamesBeat: There’s been a lot of research to back that up as well. Is that interesting to you as well?

Newman: Oh, very much. I have to tell you, or maybe you already know, that there have been many studies that claim to show that doing crosswords and playing bridge and learning a foreign language, mentally challenging things, have supposedly been shown to ward off diseases of the mind such as Alzheimer’s. I used to make that a major part of my discussions on crosswords when I talked to groups and so forth.

Daily Solitaire gets people coming back every day.

Then an article came out in the Washington Post a few years ago that said doing crosswords only gets you better at doing crosswords. Is that true? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but that was when I started thinking more about how you can apply the skills you learn from crosswords into everyday life. You’ll have to trust me, but there are ways.

What it boils down to is being able to do something other than sequential thinking. There’s the phrase “lateral thinking.” Sequential thinking, you get dressed in the morning. You put on your underpants first and your shirt last and you do it the same way every day. But there are situations where just going in a straight line from one thing to the next won’t work. It’s what I call the, “What do I do now?” moments, when you find yourself having to do something you’ve never had to do before, or in a way that you’ve never had to do before. Anybody can figure that out, but some people are totally confused as to what to do. There’s no doubt in my mind that the puzzling mind can be applied to that. That’s part of what I teach in courses about that.

GamesBeat: I suppose there’s still a mission here in getting more people interested in what they might perceive as an old thing, which is crosswords.

Newman: Oh, yes. Let me tell you one thing I’ve done with Arkadium. I’ve met many highly educated people – clergymen, lawyers, professors of foreign languages, people who live through words – who have told me face-to-face in various gatherings, “Oh, you’re a puzzle editor? I never had the knack for those.” I hear that a lot, and my response to that is always the same. “You must have never picked up the right kind of puzzles.” Maybe they happened to pick up the New York Times on Saturday, where only the top 10 percent of Times readers can do them. Or an airplane magazine where the crosswords might not be of very high quality.

What I can show you is that the very easiest crosswords these days, anybody can do them. They might be too easy for New York Times readers. But I give them a link to my easy crosswords on Arkadium, for example. They’re very surprised that yes, they can complete these, because they don’t need to know any trivia. There’s no trickiness involved. Every answer in the puzzle is going to be a word they know. I’m simplifying it, but making crosswords easy is not easy. I’ve been creating the easiest crosswords and editing them for many years. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that the easy crosswords you see in Newsday or on Arkadium are the easiest in any American newspaper. The user stats of my easy crosswords bear that out.

GamesBeat: Well, I hope you keep enjoying your new job.

Newman: So far it’s been glorious, I have to tell you. I hope we’ll have some things to talk about once some of my proposals become reality.

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