In Freshman’s Puzzles, It Helps To ‘Mind Your P’s and Q’s’

This is the debut of "SPOTLIGHT," which profiles Yale affiliates who have an interesting or unique avocation or job. Send an e-mail to susan.gonzalez@yale.edu to suggest a co-worker or friend to feature in a future "SPOTLIGHT."

He's been on campus for just a few weeks, but Yale freshman Oliver Hill has already gained a reputation as "the puzzle man."

He creates crossword puzzles — or, in crossword parlance, "constructs" them. At age 17, he realized what for many puzzle-makers is a dream: having one of his creations published in The New York Times (NYT). Since then, the newspaper has printed four more of his puzzles. The most recent appeared on Sept. 8 as part of its inaugural "Teen Puzzlemaker Week."

The Yale student recently spoke with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar about his hobby. Here is what we learned.

The puzzle bug: As a young teen, Hill teamed up with his father a few times a week to solve the NYT crossword puzzle. He later realized that he was "more smitten with the mechanics" of the puzzles and their "beautiful designs" than in solving them, he says. So he started to construct them.

"I love words and I like toying with synonyms," comments Hill. "I started playing around with grids, coming up with nice words and phrases and interlocking them."

His first projects were puzzles he made as birthday and holiday gifts for family members. Each was based on a theme meaningful to the recipient.

Like minds meet: Hill later learned that Will Shortz, the crossword editor for the NYT, lived just minutes away from him in Pleasantville, New York. "I sent him an e-mail telling him that he's been kind of a hero of mine because he created a new field of study centered around puzzles," recalls the Yale student. Shortz invited Hill over, and asked him to bring some puzzles.

"He subtly told me my puzzles needed adjustments," remembers Hill. But the crossword editor saw promise, and went on to mentor the youngster on puzzle making, eventually selecting one his student's creations for publication.

Mind Your P's and Q's: There are a number of criteria that must be followed in any crossword puzzle, notes Hill, who spends hours on their construction.

"Time passes really quickly for me, though, when I'm working," he says. "Four hours could pass but it won't feel like it. It's really surreal."

Some of the themes he has used for his NYT puzzles are "Mind Your P's and Q's" - featuring words or phrases containing both letters (i.e. "patchwork quilt") - and "Oops" - centered around the 10 most misspelled words in the English language. For the latter, puzzle solvers had to answer the clues using the misspellings of the words. Even the most adroit puzzle fans were thrown off by the clever twist.

Some of the best puzzle answers, says Hill, are colloquialisms, such as "Get a Life."

The NYT pays him $200 for puzzles printed on Monday through Saturday, and $1,000 for a larger Sunday puzzle, which is published in The New York Times Magazine. Hill has also constructed puzzles for a local newspaper in Pleasantville.

Cruciverbalists unite: Hill does the daily crossword puzzle in the NYT, but admits that he sometimes cannot complete the more challenging late-week puzzles. (The NYT puzzles increase in difficulty as the week progresses, with Monday's being the easiest and Saturday's the hardest.) He participated in one regional crossword puzzle-solving tournament, winning top honors in the under-21 age category.

"I'm not the most proficient of solvers," he claims, "but I do enjoy working with someone else on a puzzle. That's one of the greatest rewards."

He has revived a campus club called the Yale Cruciverbalist Society to share his passion for puzzles. Five students have already joined.

More than a puzzle man: In Pleasantville, Hill's peers know him more for his violin playing than his puzzle making. He performs an eclectic mix of music, including classical, folk and rock. He is "a big fan" of the Beatles.

"Along with my indoor, more ‘bookish' activities, I like to go backpacking, to be outside and not wear shoes," says Hill, who also plays intramural soccer.

For the uninitiated who want to give crossword puzzles a shot, Hill offers this advice: "Get a friend and do it together."

— By Susan González