On Crosswords and ‘Wordplay’—Deb Amlen, The New York Times

the Wordplay
Photo credit: Wordplay “family crest” by Carly Amlen

Episode Notes

Deb Amlen is the head writer and senior editor of “Wordplay,” the crossword column of The New York Times, where she’ll teach you how to be a better solver while also making you laugh. She’s particularly well-suited to this work.

The author of the humor book It's Not PMS, It's You!, Deb got her start in crosswords making puzzles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers. She’s also been a senior columnist for Yahoo! Tech, where she wrote the humor column “Buzzology,” and was on the original constructing team that made crosswords for The Onion’s A.V. Club.

We connected for this episode because Deb was gracious enough to take some time for host Ted Fox, one of those ill-fated souls who loves solving—or more accurately, attempting to solve—The New York Times crossword puzzle most days of the week. Their conversation wound its way from puzzles as a form of creative expression and even a metaphor for handling the challenges of life to more practical matters like how crosswords are constructed and strategies for getting better at them. And on that getting better note, let us just say:

Beware the rebus.


Episode Transcript

*Note: We do our best to make these transcripts as accurate as we can. That said, if you want to quote from one of our episodes, particularly the words of our guests, please listen to the audio whenever possible. Thanks.

Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge. I'm your host, Ted Fox. Before the pandemic, we were the show that invited scholars, makers, and professionals out to brunch for informal conversations about their work. And we look forward to being that show again one day. But for now, we're recording remotely to maintain physical distancing. If you like what you hear, you can leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you're listening. Thanks for stopping by.

Deb Amlen is the head writer and senior editor of Wordplay, the crossword column of The New York Times, where she'll teach you how to be a better solver while also making you laugh. She's particularly well-suited to this work. The author of the humor book It's Not PMS, It's You!, Deb got her start in crosswords making puzzles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers. She's also been a senior columnist for Yahoo! Tech, where she wrote the humor column Buzzology, and was on the original constructing team that made crosswords for The Onion's A.V. Club. We connected for this episode because Deb was gracious enough to take some time for me, one of those ill-fated souls who loves solving--or more accurately, attempting to solve--The New York Times crossword puzzle most days of the week. Our conversation wound its way from puzzles as a form of creative expression and even a metaphor for handling the challenges of life to more practical matters like how crosswords are constructed and strategies for getting better at them. And on that getting better note, let me just say: Beware the rebus. (end voiceover)

Deb Amlen, welcome to With a Side of Knowledge.

Deb Amlen  1:51  
Well, thank you, Ted. Thank you for having me here.

Ted Fox  1:54  
So, if puzzles were celebrities, The New York Times crossword would definitely be an A-lister, but I'm guessing not as many people know there is a daily column associated with it, which--you write that column. So what is Wordplay, and what kinds of things do you write about there?

Deb Amlen  2:14  
Well, first of all, thank you very much for increasing awareness of Wordplay. We were getting ready to have a telethon. But now, we clearly don't need that now that we're on With a Side of Knowledge.

Ted Fox  2:27  
(laughs) That's right. 

Deb Amlen  2:30  
Anyway, Wordplay is officially the crossword column of The New York Times. There is a daily crossword that everybody knows about, but what a lot of people, particularly newer solvers, might not know is that there is a daily column that goes with it, where we try to explain the puzzle for those who need the help. We talk about what kind of clues you can expect to see in the puzzle. We explain the theme once in a while. If something comes up, I will tell a story about my life, like the charging pigs story, which people won't let me forget. And you know, we're just there to support the solvers because we believe that everybody can learn to do The New York Times crossword.

Ted Fox  3:16  
So what is the charging pigs story? I don't ... so I'm gonna (both laugh) make you tell it now that you've brought it up.

Deb Amlen  3:20  
No, that's a whole other podcast. But no, Wordplay's motto is, We're here to help you solve. And I'm a humor writer by trade, so we try to make the columns, or at least some of them, funny. Because I also think that people learn better when they're laughing.

Ted Fox  3:38  
Sure, agreed. I don't know that crossword solvers, or at least casual solvers like myself--and I, especially being at home during the pandemic, I've really gotten back into a better rhythm of at least attempting it every day, and we'll get to some of my struggles there a little bit later--but I don't know that people, at least the casual solvers among us, spend a lot of time thinking about crossword puzzles as acts of creative expression on the [part of] people who are putting them together. I think it's very easy to look at them like clue, letters, squares, that's it.

Deb Amlen  4:14  
Right. People tend to look at the crossword as a two-dimensional, joyless--you know, they sit down to do a crossword like they're sitting down to take the SAT, you know, with a light coating of sweat. And that's really not what it is. It's a game, and games are meant to be fun. So what we try to do is, is break down that wall of intimidation that exists between solvers in The New York Times crossword and show them that they can do it. And it's really great because once that happens, people seem to apply that to other areas of their life. They realize that most issues, like most crossword puzzles, can be broken down into very manageable chunks. If you look at a blank crossword grid, the first feeling you probably feel is your stomach in knots going, Oh my God, I can't do this.

Ted Fox  5:08  

Deb Amlen  5:09  
But once you get that first entry, that first gimme that you absolutely know, you're in.

Ted Fox  5:15  

Deb Amlen  5:16  
And you're managing an issue one chunk at a time. And that really does translate into life's problems.

Ted Fox  5:24  
Right. Sifting through an inbox would be one that comes to mind.

Deb Amlen  5:28  
There is no such thing as inbox zero, I'm sorry.

Ted Fox  5:31  
There is not, no. So I think it's especially cool, and one of the cool things that you do with Wordplay, is you will point out sometimes with these--either a theme for a puzzle, I know, for instance, there was one recently that you used the opportunity of Wordplay to explain there was a Ruth Bader Ginsburg theme to the puzzle, but then the actual puzzle creator had a connection and story. I mean, can you tell that one or any other recent examples that are ... because it is really just kind of this creative thing, and to remind us that, Oh, no, there is a human being behind this, putting it together.

Deb Amlen  6:07  
Oh, it's most definitely an art form, it's an art form to edit a puzzle. The Ruth Bader Ginsburg puzzle was one of my favorites in recent solving. It was done by a man whose wife, as a child, had listened to a lecture from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And Justice Ginsburg had said something to her--and I'm sorry, I apologize, I can't remember what it was--that, you know, helped her through her adulthood. And so the puzzle, while it was about Justice Ginsburg, also was sort of a love letter to his wife, which I thought was very sweet. And with most columns, we have a section called Constructor Notes, and that is a part that the puzzlemaker or constructor writes and tells us a little bit about themselves, about how the puzzle was made. I mean, they can go off into a million different directions. But there's usually something about the puzzle, and he told us this story, which I thought was just charming, and I enjoyed it a lot.

But most people do think that crosswords are made by computers. That's changed a lot. With the movie Wordplay, which came out in 2005, I think people began to realize that when they open their newspapers to the crossword puzzle page, it's not something that just suddenly grew in there, it didn't just sprout. And we got to meet Merl Reagle, who was one of the best and a creative genius. I mean, he couldn't contain it in him, it literally came out his pores, and all the other--quite a few other constructors. But it was mostly a love letter to solvers, I think. And what happens is that the constructors tend to be--most people don't read bylines. I don't know if you've noticed that. I have. So they don't notice that there is a name attached to each crossword

Ted Fox  7:17  

Deb Amlen  7:19  
That bothered me. And I wanted to bring the creators of the puzzles out in front of the audience, so to speak, a little bit more. I mean, everybody knows that Will Shortz edits The New York Times crossword puzzle, and he is the face of the puzzle. But I wanted people to meet the people behind it because I felt that, well, first of all, many of them are my friends, and I think they're eminently worth knowing. And I also felt that if you're going to really enjoy crossword puzzles, it really helped to meet the people, get used to their styles, and I thought that people should have favored constructors in the same way that you like certain musicians and tend to collect their music, or actors and you go and see their films or their plays. And I thought it would be so neat if, you know, people could meet someone like Byron Walden and get to know his puzzles and be able to associate a face with the name.

Ted Fox  9:20  
I had that experience just last night. Her first name is Stella, her last name begins with a Z ...

Deb Amlen  9:27  
Stella Zawistowski, yes.

Ted Fox  9:29  
And I had that experience last night when I went to do it, I was like, Oh, I remember Stella's last puzzle, and I really liked it and immediately felt like--I had read her kind of interview about how she views constructing, and I was like, Oh, I feel like I'm ... not necessarily that it makes it easier, but I feel like I have a sense of that puzzle then before I even go into it, which is very cool.

Deb Amlen  9:51  
It's a lot like buying a piece of art from an artist that you know, that you get a chance to meet. I think that it's a wonderful thing, and that's why we have a monthly feature on Wordplay called Who Made My Puzzle? Today we have a new one that just came out, and the spotlight this month shines on Kevin Christian, who is another one of our constructors. So they are interviewed, and we get to know a little bit about their lives, about their views of puzzles, about which computer software they might use. And there's usually a portrait on top of the constructor. So you have a face, a name, and you get to know a little bit about them like you've sat down to have a cup of coffee with them.

Ted Fox  10:36  
Right. So [we'll] talk a little bit now about puzzles themselves. Your June 24th Wordplay, you started by writing: "Many solvers ask how they're supposed to know when there is 'funny business' going on in the grid." This was so encouraging to me because I thought I was the only person thinking, Man, how am I supposed to know when there's funny business going on in the grid? One example of these sorts of shenanigans is called a rebus. For the uninitiated, what is a rebus?

Deb Amlen  11:09  
Well, traditionally, a rebus can be any symbol or a number or a group of letters in a crossword puzzle. That's a rebus as it refers to crossword puzzles. There are other kinds of rebus puzzles. But when you are talking about a crossword, a rebus most often means that there's something in the square besides a single letter. It could be a symbol, it could be a number, very often and most often, I would say, it would be a group of letters. Getting back to your question and how it made you feel better--I'm really glad you told me that because one of the things that I work the hardest at is to make people understand that they're not alone and that there's nothing odd about what they might be thinking. There's no problem with cursing at the crossword.

Ted Fox  12:01  

Deb Amlen  12:01  
You know, it's an adversary, and you have to take it down. But the question I get most often is, Why didn't you tell us? And it's such an odd question to me because it's a puzzle, you're supposed to figure that out.

Ted Fox  12:18  
(laughing) Right. Well, no, I just--I told you when we were trading emails building up to this, it was such a satisfying feeling, I think it was the Sunday, July 5, puzzle, and it was, there was a down clue in it that was "tick all the boxes." And it was a rebus where when you were--I think it was when you were going across you needed the words t-i-c-k for tick or it might have been reverse of this--and then when you were going down, it was well, it's a box. And so, like, you'd have the word like "soapbox" going one way, and then "tickle" something going the other way. And it was the first time in my life that I got one of these without revealing it, and it was such a ...

Deb Amlen  12:59  
A high.

Ted Fox  12:59  
You're right. I mean, the feeling of it is like, Oh my gosh, I'm the smartest man in the world, I just figured this out. But it's such a great feeling.

Deb Amlen  13:05  
Isn't that great? I think that's wonderful. It's funny, when I started writing Wordplay, I was kind of rebus-blind. I did not recognize rebuses well, maybe because I don't have a great sense of spatial relationships. But I developed a theory after a while, and my theory is this: If you are trying to get into the puzzle, and you're not having a lot of success, and you find that you've gotten to the point where you're hurling invectives at the puzzle, it's most likely a rebus.

Ted Fox  13:38  
(laughing) I'd say that's good advice. So, The Times puzzle gets progressively more difficult as the week goes on. Is there a certain day of the week where something like that becomes fair game, or should we be prepared for it on any given day?

Deb Amlen  13:57  
I'm going to answer this first the way Will Shortz would want me to answer it, and then I'm going to tell you how I feel.

Ted Fox  14:05  
(laughing) Fair. Good disclaimer.

Deb Amlen  14:07  
Will holds that the puzzles don't have a special day for tricks, but that each day is just one harder than the next. And that's true a lot of the time. However, I have noticed that the days when there are those high-wire tricks in puzzles are most likely to be found on Thursdays. And that's why when Thursday comes about and there is such a trick, I will write, Remember, it's Thursday, that's how you know. Because even though Thursday is in the middle of the week, Friday and Saturday don't run with a theme. So they're trickier, but they're trickier in a different way. And surprisingly, Sunday is not the hardest day of the week. It's just larger.

Ted Fox  15:01  
Right. And I was going to ask you that, and that's definitely been my experience, is that there's times when the Saturday puzzle can feel darn near impossible. And I always feel like I have more of an entry into the Sunday puzzle, but the Sunday puzzle is massive. I mean, it's just sprawling. And I know we talk[ed] about it, it's an art of creative expression in creating a puzzle. So it's not a scientific formula. But do you have a sense of, in terms of the difficulty, just on a clue-by-clue basis, of a Sunday puzzle? Does that track with any earlier day in the week to you, or is the Sunday puzzle kind of its own thing?

Deb Amlen  15:41  
Well, I was going to say, to get back to when you can expect to start seeing those tricks, Thursday is the big day, but you might also see them on Wednesday because that's when you start to see the sort of trickier clues, more question marks. We've even had a couple of rebus puzzles on Wednesdays now. So my rule when doing a puzzle edited by Will Shortz is, Expect anything. And I think that's just sage advice. You can't get mad because nobody told you the answers to the puzzle or that there was a trick in the puzzle. You're supposed to figure that out and look how--look how much better you feel when you did. But the Sunday puzzle itself, as far as I know, is supposed to be midweek difficulty. So [let's just say] Wednesday or Thursday difficulty.

Ted Fox  16:32  
Okay. That seems to, I would say that seems to track for me especially. I definitely notice a difference in my solving abilities moving from Wednesday to Thursday. Like I feel like when you move into Thursday, it's like, Alright, the rubber, the rubber is hittin' the road now when you get into those Thursday, Friday, Saturday puzzles. It definitely goes up a notch.

Deb Amlen  16:51  
Well, you know, it's funny, a lot of people will tell me, Oh, I'm a Monday, Tuesday, maybe a Wednesday solver, but I can't do the Thursdays, and I definitely can't do the Fridays and the Saturdays. And then they usually finish by saying, And I definitely can't do the Sundays. And I say, Well, but if you can do the Wednesdays, you can most likely do the Sundays. I don't think there is that much of a difference in difficulty in a Thursday puzzle than a Wednesday puzzle when it comes to individual clues. You might see more question mark clues, which means that there's some wordplay afoot. You might have to think more laterally. But that's the whole reason behind the guide that we have up on the top of the Wordplay section, How to Solve The New York Times Crossword Puzzle. It's there to break down each type of clue so that you recognize it. And you can practice with little minis that were written by Sam Ezersky at the end of each chapter, and you're at least aware that these things exist so that you're not caught short.

Ted Fox  17:59  
Right. In addition to writing Wordplay and solving puzzles, you yourself are a crossword-maker. How does someone get started as a constructor of crossword puzzles?

Deb Amlen  18:10  
That's a great question. For me, it was quite a few years ago when my kids were small, and I needed a creative outlet that didn't have anything to do with Pokemon or Elmo.

Ted Fox  18:24  
(laughing) It's an affliction I can identify with.

Deb Amlen  18:26  
See, yeah, there you go. Everybody gets into it for their own reason, usually because they solve the puzzle and then say, Well, that doesn't look so hard, I can do that. Now ultimately, that's true. However, there is a very steep learning curve to making a crossword puzzle. In order to get into it, my suggestion, I think the first place to start is, it's always good to be a puzzle-solver and to solve as many as you can because that helps you sort of get into the rhythm of what a good published puzzle looks like and what it feels like when you're solving it. And there are other resources. Patrick Berry, who is one of the best constructors out there, has a book on his website, which is aframegames.com, and that's $10 to download. I'd highly recommend that. If people are on Facebook, there is a wonderful group called the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, which is meant to hook up underrepresented groups of crossword-makers with mentors who can teach them how to make a professional puzzle, and I highly recommend that. I learned from a mentor and, you know, because there are so many little rules that you have to follow to make a good crossword, I think trying to do it by yourself is sort of banging your head against the wall. Having someone who can immediately say to you, You know, this is great, but we don't have two-letter entries in American crossword puzzles, is a huge help, and you learn a lot faster. Some people want to do it themselves; I recommend finding a mentor. And there are two groups on Facebook ... the Cruciverb group. And we are also looking for more people from underrepresented groups, people of color, women, LGBTQ+, and the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory is there to ask questions, learn a little bit about constructing, and ultimately to hook you up with somebody who knows what they're doing and can help you get published.

Ted Fox  20:53  
I feel like I've seen your byline on puzzles in The Times. That's right, isn't it?

Deb Amlen  20:57  

Ted Fox  20:57  
Where else have you--that's the other thing that I think, I mean, we think of The New York Times crossword puzzle because again, like I said off the top, it's kind of an A-lister when it comes to puzzles, but there's so many great outlets for crossword puzzles. So where else would we have seen your work?

Deb Amlen  21:15  
Well, I don't construct that much anymore. I've sort of let writing take over my life. But I started out with a Sunday New York Times debut. And I--back then, things worked a little differently. There weren't as many syndicates, and you could submit puzzles to a lot of different newspapers. Some of them are still with us, some of them are not anymore. I did very well at The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times. I was one of the original constructors with the A.V. Club Onion crossword, which is now the AVCX puzzle, which is a terrific indie puzzle. And I also created the world's first x-rated crossword for Bust magazine, which is a feminist crafty magazine for women.

Ted Fox  22:16  
I know you said you don't do it as much anymore, but--and I say this also recognizing, I imagine there's as many different styles as there are crossword puzzle-makers out there--but for when you, Deb Amlen, sit down, and you're going to do a puzzle, are you starting with a theme in mind? Are you starting with a series of clues? Like, what is kind of the genesis of a puzzle when you're first getting into it?

Deb Amlen  22:40  
I tend to be a themed puzzle-maker because I come at this like a writer. I'm not, you know, a scientist or a mathematician who is studying grid design and things like that. So my joy is really in developing the theme. I love playing with words. So the first thing a themed puzzle needs is to have a polished theme. And that can take a while depending on what you choose because sometimes, you know, the muse is with you, and sometimes it's not. And once you have the theme, you take a blank grid, and you put the theme entries in the grid, and you start to fill in the black squares around it.

Ted Fox  23:26  

Deb Amlen  23:27  
And once you have a suitable grid, you then fill around the theme. And this is a very long story because obviously there are things that you have to move around when they don't work. But this is the general basic steps toward making the puzzle. You fill around it, and you try to put the most sparkling, lively fill, and you try to stay away from partials and all the things that people don't enjoy in puzzles. And then you write the clues for all those words. So it's theme, grid design, fill, and clues.

Ted Fox  24:05  
You mentioned a few minutes ago, talking about a Will Shortz-edited puzzle, and I'm wondering what that process of working with an editor is like when you're making a crossword puzzle. And you mentioned some of the different places that you've had puzzles published--if working with different places and different publishers, they're looking for different things in their puzzles by virtue of where they are.

Deb Amlen  24:32  
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I can tell you for a fact that The New York Times is looking for much different things in its puzzles than, you know, The Onion is, or Bust magazine is. You know, I was doing some of them at the same time and it was just so great; I could sit down and make a puzzle for The New York Times, the Gray Lady, and then I could turn around, let down my hair, and write something really, really funky for Bust magazine. That was a lot of fun. So yeah, I think it absolutely pays to know your market. You know, you don't have to have an MBA, but you do need to know what your audience is. It's not really even down to the editors. It's down to, Will this fly in The New York Times? And Will has a pretty good grip on that. I haven't worked with him in a while on a puzzle, but, you know, he's willing to give feedback to aspiring constructors. I know that the people who work with him, Joel Fagliano and Sam Ezersky, are very much in touch with constructors who submit puzzles and will work with them. If there are issues in the puzzle, or if it's not quite ready for primetime, they will give feedback and work with the constructor until it's ready to go.

Ted Fox  25:52  
Is that process, is it--I mean, I guess I imagine it could be about anything--is it most often about kind of phrasing of clues? Or is it, We don't want this answer in the puzzle? Like, I'm trying to think about like--I mean, it's very easy to put yourself in the mindset of ... because I'm a writer, as well, and I think about the kinds of things that we go in and look for when we're editing a piece of writing. And I'm trying to kind of imagine a crossword puzzle editor, if it's like, Eh, this clue for this day of the week, it's too obscure, like you need to tweak that. Or is it a more fundamental thing than that, I guess?

Deb Amlen  26:29  
Well, if something, you know, was really offensive in the puzzle, or let's say some of the entries were just so obscure and they cross each other, the editors will send it back to the constructor and say, You know, we kind of like where this is going, but you have to get rid of that corner. And you have to redo it. The editors themselves have been known to redo parts of the puzzle. I would say that the majority of it, though, is in the clues. Will rewrites quite a lot of the clues depending on the constructor. A newer constructor will always have the majority of their clues rewritten because, and I was guilty of this too in the beginning, it's very hard to write 100 Tuesday-level clues. You know, very often you'll have something, and you'll think of a really, really evil clue for an entry. And you know you're supposed to be (laughs) doing this for a Tuesday, and it's supposed to be easy, but you just can't help putting it in and hoping that Will will take it. But Will is very good at and Joel is very good at keeping the levels relatively consistent for the day of the week. I mean, there's always going to be one or two that people go, Huh? But by and large, you know, I think it's good that they have a hand in the editing.

Ted Fox  27:58  
Well, that's interesting, you mentioned that there, too, and it totally makes sense, but this idea of, you have these two really obscure answers crossing each other. Because I, again as a solver, you sit there and it's like, Alright, I have no idea what it is going that way, but maybe I can get something going across. And if they're both super obscure, then you're like, Okay, well, I guess it's just gonna be kind of a wasteland corner I'm gonna leave aside for a little while now.

Deb Amlen  28:20  

Ted Fox  28:20  
Yeah. No, that's really interesting.

Deb Amlen  28:22  
That's what I usually recommend if people can't get a specific entry or the crossing, put the puzzle down for a while and walk away, do something else, because you'd be surprised how your brain works on things in the background while you're doing other things. And when you come back to it, you very often find that you can tackle things you couldn't tackle 20 minutes ago.

Ted Fox  28:50  
So that's a great tip right there as we're wrapping up here. As I said, I definitely notice a change in my abilities going from Wednesday to Thursday. So if someone listening to this wants to get better at solving, I'm sure there's not just like this magic trick to doing it, but what would your main piece of advice to someone who wants--and I have a guess what it might be, but I want to hear what you say what your main piece of advice would be.

Deb Amlen  29:16  
It's like getting to Carnegie Hall: practice. You have to solve in order to become a better solver. Every now and then, you'll find a clue you don't know what the heck the clue was asking you to do. But a light will go on--you know, the proverbial cartoon light bulb will go on over your head--and you'll get it, and most people are moving through life so fast that they don't even stop to notice that they just learned something, and that they can carry that on to the next puzzle. Again, I think that it's really good to practice. I think that it's good to--this is pretty shameless--it's good to read the Wordplay column. Not only just for my bad jokes, but also because I spend a lot of time explaining what the clues are asking you to do. That is the fundamental thing that makes people a better solver. It's not being intimidated by what you do or don't know. It's about understanding that the clues are written to get you to the answer. If you see that the clue is a plural, the answer has to be a plural. Right away that will make you a much better solver if you understand that. There are people who don't know that if the clue is a part of speech like a noun, then the answer has to be a noun. a clue in a foreign language will mean the answer has to be in that foreign language, and that is something that will immediately make people a much better solver. There are a lot of people who surprisingly don't know that.

Ted Fox  31:01  
Right. And I've definitely found that just in my own, to your point about practicing, it's almost--I don't know that I want to call it the language of crossword puzzle clues, but you really, the more you do, you become so much more well-versed in, This is the kind of answer it's pointing me too, and okay, so now I'm at least in that headspace, and it gives me a lot better shot of trying to figure out what that answer is.

Deb Amlen  31:24  
Exactly. And just another shameless plug: Wordplay is not just the daily column; it's a whole section. And we have besides the constructor shout-outs, we also have a weekly feature called What the Heck is That, where we take an entry that stumped a lot of our solvers and we explain it, and then we show them how it might be clued so that they know what to expect the next time they run into it. We have a series of articles that are by topic, so things like, you know, eight European rivers you need to know to be a better crossword solver. And that is under the Words to Know section of Wordplay. We have so many different resources for people, you know, if your wheelhouse is not good--like for example, my wheelhouse when it comes to sports is just terrible. I know almost nothing; I know Mel Ott just because he comes up so much. 

Ted Fox  32:24  
(laughs) He comes up a lot, right.

Deb Amlen  32:24  
Right. Or Bobby Orr. And, you know, we had Sam Ezersky, who is the associate puzzle editor, wrote some articles for me about things like that--10 sports names you need to know to be a better crossword solver. So if you are looking to improve your wheelhouse or your area of expertise in some way, that series of articles I think can be very helpful.

Ted Fox  32:49  
And so for folks looking for Wordplay, obviously, it's in the physical paper.

Deb Amlen  32:54  
No--we're online only. (laughs)

Ted Fox  32:58  
Obviously it's online only--it's online. (both laugh) And so, is it a part of The New York Times app, as well?

Deb Amlen  33:09  
I believe there is a link to it in the app. If you go to the daily puzzle, you can click on something that says "Read all about it on Wordplay," or I think if you're in the puzzle, it's under the buoy. There's a little life buoy there. I think it's best to read us on a laptop on the web because there you can readily find all the different articles and things that you need to know.

Ted Fox  33:40  
And you're also on Twitter. I know that.

Deb Amlen  33:42  
Oh, yes, yes, I run The New York Times Wordplay account, and we have a lot of fun. If people tweet to me that they finish the puzzle without looking anything up--which honestly, I think looking things up is just fine--or that they did it and it's the first time they've ever completed one and they tweet to me, I will give them a gold medal emoji and kind of cheer them on. Because it's really all about, you know, recognizing your accomplishments, and being able to do The New York Times crossword is an accomplishment.

Ted Fox  34:15  
Deb Amlen, thanks so much. This was so much fun to talk about puzzles with you today.

Deb Amlen  34:19  
Thank you. I had fun, too.

Ted Fox  34:21  
(voiceover) With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame. Our website is withasideofpod.nd.edu.