NORTHERN VIRGINIA -- A local teenager's affinity for crossword puzzles began at a Hair Cuttery where there were half-finished books of word games.
Sam Ezersky, then age 6, quickly filled in the missing words while he waited for his family.
Ezersky is now a South Lakes High School senior and a crossword puzzle creator. In the past year, Ezersky has had three puzzles published in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
"The concept of interlocking words is amazing to me," he says. Ezersky, like many a fan of crossword puzzles, says he can do a weekday New York Times puzzle in about three minutes. The vaunted Sunday one, of course, takes a little longer.
But the path to creating and publishing puzzles in these major publications is not smooth as finding a six-letter word for "no problem."
Ezersky started making puzzles a few years ago with a goal of geing published in the New York Times before he turned 18 (he beat his deadline; he will turn 18 in May). He said he submitted about 13 or 14 to the New York Times, which were promptly and kindly rejected by legendary crossword editor Will Shortz.
Through the online crossword community, Ezersky was eventually connected with a mentor, Vic Fleming. Fleming, a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., gives Ezersky coaching via email to ensure the puzzles meet publishing standards.
Fleming has had 35 puzzles published in the New York Times since 2005. He says he was "a colossal failure," with more than a dozen rejections, when he started out (and before he also had his own mentor).
"Sam is very eager," Fleming says. "He will be able to do well at whatever he does."
There are a handful of teens creating puzzles, says Ezersky.
"I am actually the 13th youngest to be published since 1942," he said. He also gets paid the papers' freelance rate for his published puzzles, he said.
Fleming says the key to a good puzzle is the theme. Once puzzlemakers come up with the theme, they lay out the grid. After that, they fill up the grid, which takes from thee to seven hours, and then they write the clues, Ezersky said. They can and do consult word databases to help them.
For a Sunday puzzle, there needs to be about 146 words. For a daily puzzle, about 75 words will suffice, says Ezersky.
Ezersky is an International Baccalaureate diploma candidate at South Lakes. He recently just completed a dozen college applications but really has his eye on Columbia University in New York.
With his way with words, one might surmise Ezersky is headed for some kind of writing career. Not really. Ezersky got a perfect score on the math SATs and is interested in studying engineering.
Puzzles, he said, are not just about words.
"A crossword puzzle is a giant engineering project," Ezersky said. "It is ultimately about math and engineering."