DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK. Play along here: The subject of our next story is nine letters long. It's a type of word puzzle. Answers go horizontally and vertically in this grid of squares. I've probably given it away, haven't I? Yes, it's a crossword. And tomorrow, the venerable crossword puzzle turns 100 years old. In its first century, the word game has gained legions of fans around the world and a reputation for staving off dementia. NPR's Adam Cole takes a look at the history and the hype.
ADAM COLE, BYLINE: If you're doing a story about word games, you can't resist calling up NPR's puzzle master and the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, Will Shortz. We started at the beginning with a man named Arthur Wynne.
WILL SHORTZ, BYLINE: Well, Arthur Wynne was from England. He actually grew up in Liverpool.
SHORTZ: Man, don't say Liverpool. It could have been Leeds, now that I'm thinking about it.
COLE: OK. Some L word.
SHORTZ: And he was the editor of a Sunday supplement in the New York World called Fun.
COLE: The Sunday before Christmas in 1913, he published the first-ever crossword.
SHORTZ: Which he called a word cross. It was in the shape of a hollow diamond.
COLE: It had just 32 words, and one word was already filled in: the word fun. Wynne tried to get the paper to copyright his invention.
SHORTZ: And the editors sort of poo-pooh'd the idea, thought this was just a passing thing.
COLE: But it wasn't. Even though early crosswords usually had a lot of errors, people couldn't get enough. By the 1930s, most papers had a regular crossword feature. But when did people start thinking of crosswords as a game for smart people?
SHORTZ: Well, I can tell you this: at the start of World War II, the British government had a competition for solving crosswords.
COLE: And the winners were quietly invited to join Britain's code-breaking department. The mental prowess of crossword solvers has also attracted the attention of scientists. A few years ago, cognitive psychologist Shane Mueller watched a movie about crossword puzzles.
SHANE MUELLER: And I thought: I could learn to play the crossword.
COLE: Mueller is a professor of psychology at Michigan Tech, so naturally, he approached his new hobby in a very scientific way.
MUELLER: Every day, I would do the New York Times puzzle, and I would record my times.
COLE: And he made a rather unpleasant discovery.
MUELLER: I'm not very good.
COLE: To be fair, he's actually much better than average, but he's still leagues behind the experts.
MUELLER: With my improvement rate, I would have to play for maybe 40 to 60 years to get as good as the top players.
COLE: Mueller decided to study the top players in their native habitat, the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which happens to be hosted by Will Shortz.
SHORTZ: So, here we go. On your mark, get set, begin.
COLE: Mueller waits outside the tournament hall, and when puzzlers emerge, he asks them to play some diagnostic games. Based on their performance, Mueller has started to figure out what makes them so good. Turns out, it's how they approach the puzzle's clues. In an example of this, I check back in with Will.
SHORTZ: Give me 10 seconds. I'll give you a great clue I edited just a few minutes ago. Hold on a sec. Be right back.
COLE: The clue Will is rushing to retrieve is the kind of clue that might trick a novice by leading them down an incorrect path.
SHORTZ: OK. Here I am. You're there, right?
COLE: Yep, I'm here.
SHORTZ: OK. I had to spend, you know, two or three seconds to understand the clue, and I thought, whoa, that's brilliant. It was make a little lower.
COLE: And we're looking for a five-letter word.
SHORTZ: Now, the first time you read that clue, make a little lower, you know, you're thinking of decreasing the height of something.
COLE: But it turns out that would be the wrong path. OK. I'll give you a hint...
(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)
COLE: Did that help at all? No? Well, how about a Christmassy clue?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILENT NIGHT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) The cattle are lowing...
COLE: Lowing? So, a cow giving birth is making a little lower. And the answer is...
SHORTZ: Calve: C-A-L-V-E.
COLE: So, what helps a top solver breeze through that clue? Mueller says it's not just they know a lot of words, though they do, or that they're good at seeing patterns, though they're better than average. These crossword puzzle champions are expert decision-makers.
SHORTZ: An expert is better able to identify the possible consequences or the possible options at any given point.
COLE: So, when they hear a clue like make a little lower, they don't go straight for the obvious and incorrect choice of decreasing height. They consider a wide range of possible means, and then they leverage their experience - memories of all the other clues they've ever solved - to zero in on the correct answer. With all that heavy-duty thinking, it's not surprising that people have wondered if crosswords are good for the brain.
SHORTZ: To me, that makes sense. You know, if you want to keep your body in shape physically, then you should do physical exercise. And if you want to keep your brain in shape, then you should do mental exercise.
COLE: But for once, Shortz's logic has failed him. In fact, exercising and socializing, two less intellectual activities, have been shown to prevent cognitive decline. But the case for crosswords isn't as strong. Mueller says if you look at all the studies that investigate whether crosswords can stave off dementia or Alzheimer's, the results boil down to this...
MUELLER: There isn't strong evidence for it, but it probably can't hurt.
COLE: And anyway, it's fun. Adam Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.