Mar 25, 2010

Interview with Jeff Chen

Jeff Chen made his LA Times debut on July 3, 2009 with a fascinating "Set In" puzzle, in which four familiar phrases are subjected to literal cluing and twisting. For example, THE ELEPHANT ROOM is clued as "It's too important to ignore, literally", a word play on "Elephant in the Room".

And many of us enjoyed his last FALL puzzle (FALL can be added to each descending theme entry to form a common word). It has a very simple & elegant visual image. Jeff gave us more in-depth analysis on that puzzle in today's interview. He might provide us with his inspiration for today's "Four of a Kind" puzzle in the Comments section if he finds time later today.

How did the FALL theme idea come to you? And what kind of troubles did you go through to make the grid work?

After doing the New York Times and Los Angeles Times puzzles every day for about six months, I began to wonder why they always had horizontal theme entries, hardly ever vertical. I thought it would be fun to put a theme together that play off of vertical answers. One item on my running list of ideas was "words that can be followed by the word FALL" (this was back in August), but I had put it on the back-burner because both the LAT and NYT were going away from that over-used type of puzzle theme. But tying it to a vertical set of answers seemed like it might make it fresh enough to get accepted. Luckily, Rich agreed!

Theme and block placement is a fun puzzle in itself. Most of the time it's not so difficult to come up with a set of placements, unless you have more than 4 theme entries, or most of your entries are 12 or 13 letters long. Both conditions restrict the amount of space you can put between theme entries, due to the rules of crosswords. Having more space between theme entries gives you more flexibility in coming up with a clean fill. This particular grid was only challenging because I couldn't get my mind to work with vertical answers. Once I flipped everything to construct horizontally, it didn't take long. Simple matter to switch the grid diagonally after that.

You mentioned earlier on our blog that "Trying to anticipate solvers' "aha" moments as well as points of frustration has been a great exercise in creativity". Which entries did you think would give the solvers the "Aha" moments and which ones did you expect some groans or frustration?

I like the idea of people wondering why theme entries tie together while they work their way through the puzzle, then all of a sudden figuring it out in a little moment of happiness. I hoped that the answer FALL being in the bottom corner would do that. I also like looking for odd words and phrases to put in after the main answers, such as THWACK. I don't know why, but that word makes me laugh.

Perhaps the most important thing I've picked up from reading blogs (thank you all!) is that solvers (maybe above all else), hate being frustrated or bored when doing what should be an entertaining diversion to the day. Therefore, I try to work really hard in avoiding "crosswordese", partials, or little known names. Sometimes this means completely redoing a grid from the start, but for me it's worth it.

What is it like to work with Rich Norris? What have you learned about his theme/fill preferences?

I've really enjoyed working with Rich. I agree with his notion that it's a high priority is to avoid those annoying words and partials that only crossword fanatics know. He's very responsive, and spends time thinking about what his audience would like. An example of his responsiveness: I was curious how to get more crosswords published, so asked him what he needed more of. He was quick to answer that he could use fresh, easy Monday level puzzles, as well as Sundays, so I've been focusing my efforts on those. It's nice to go back and forth with him on puzzles.

What's your background? And what prompted you to construct your first crossword?

I got my Mechanical Engineering BS and MS in 1993/1994, and worked for seven years in product design consulting. I loved working on medical devices, which I felt could help so many people with the quality and length of their lives. I went to business school to make a career change toward more decision-making, and helped a friend start a pharmaceutical company in 2002, Acucela Inc. We did a nice deal in 2008 so I decided to leave the company, travel, and work more with local non-profits.

I enjoy all kinds of puzzles (one of my goals in life is to finish top 50 in the Google World Puzzle Championship qualifying exam), but for some reason shied away from crosswords. A friend got me into them two years ago, and I couldn't believe what I'd been missing. Not too long after, I decided that another goal of mine would be to get one published.

How does becoming a constructor affect the way you solve & enjoy a puzzle?

I find that I stare at and analyze grids before I even start solving. I love seeing a Monday puzzle with wide-open space, an odd grid where someone bends a rule but comes up with something interesting, or especially when a constructor manages to stuff a puzzle with goodies without compromising the solver's fun factor.

What kind of puzzles do you solve every day? And who are your favorite constructors?

Due to time constraints, I just do the LA Times and the NY Times daily, and CrossSynergy on Sundays. Another of my goals is to be able to solve the NYT Saturday regularly, but I'm still a long ways off. About 75% of the time I can almost finish the NYT Friday. There's usually a small pocket of squares that causes me to bang my head against the wall.

I enjoy the variety within constructors, but I look forward to, and simultaneously shudder, when I see Bob Klahn's name on a themeless puzzle. KLAHN!!! It's tough to beat Elizabeth Gorski when it comes to visual puzzles. She's amazingly productive and creative. I could go on and on about all the great constructors out there.

Besides crossword, what else do you do for fun?

I rock climb, mostly indoors, where yet another goal of mine is to consistently boulder V5 problems (intermediate difficulty stuff). Other climbers sometimes wonder why I spend so much time on my computer there! I love playing bridge, and have a small group of people I play with semi-regularly. I also spend a lot of time in investment management - I help out with a couple of friends and family with their portfolios. I have another goal (tired of listening to my goals yet?) of setting up three friends so they get married, before I turn 40. I only have two years left now, but two friends are getting married in July, so it's still possible! I also play Ultimate Frisbee with my team, "Genghis Khan Wild". Finally, I volunteer with several local non-profits in Seattle: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, Treehouse for Kids, GambiaHELP, Passages Northwest. It's been great to see Obama's call to action spur so many young people to action. I hope it continues!


Dennis said...

An excellent interview. I remember the 'Fall' puzzle; it was one of my all-time favorites.

I came away from this interview further enlightened as to the thought process of a constructor, but I've got one question: Jeff, when the hell do you sleep??

Lemonade714 said...

A very interesting interview, and I agree the Fall Puzzle was very fresh and fun, and all in a Monday puzzle. I would like to know if the use of EDEN as the mirror of FALL was an allusion to the Fall from Grace?

Thank you Mr. Chen, it is great to see so many new and prolific constructors who are also great human beings

Clear Ayes said...

It just gets better and better. I'll follow my fellow posters and say this is an excellent and interesting interview.

"Aha" moments are rare. Both the Fall puzzle and today's provided lovely ones.

Thanks to C.C. and Jeff Chen for allowing us access to an inventive constructor.

Crockett1947 said...

Great interview, as always. I got my "AHA" with today's theme. That was fun.

Thank you Jeff and C.C.

JD said...

Love your enthusiasm and creativity.

Thanks for the interview, CC and Mr. Chen.

Jimmie said...

Jeff Chen, why are 12 or 13 letters theme answers hard to place?

Jeff said...

Well, now I'm blushing. Thanks for all the wonderful comments! It's really enjoyable creating puzzles, and incredibly fulfilling to hear people that get a bit of pleasure in their day out of something I've made.

@Jimmie: I like to have at four or more theme answers in a puzzle (today's I started with IIII as a fourth, but Rich thought it was undesirable to have an insult so we pared back to three). It's much easier to create good fill if you have at least two rows between theme answers, otherwise the constraints become pretty difficult.

In an standard 15x15 crossword, the only way you can put at least two rows of space in between theme answers is to have answers at rows 3, 6, 10, 13. You can do this if the theme answers in rows 3 and 13 are, say, 10 long, because the block at the end of the row 3 answer can then have blocks vertically above it in rows 2 and 1.

However, if the first theme answer is 13 long for example, you can't put it in row 3. This is because the ending block then has to have blocks above it in rows 2 and 1, and a block to its right in column 15. It makes a big hulking black chunk in the corner, which is more or less verboten.

So that means if your first answer is 12 or 13 long, it has to go in row 4, which creates a spacing problem within the grid, with at least one area where two theme answers are separated by only one row. Makes filling much tougher.

Hope that makes sense!


Anonymous said...

Agree with CC, the theme is inventive & fun. Look forward to your future puzzles, Mr. Chen.

Jimmie said...

Thank you, Jeff. I resolved your 'Fall' puzzle yesterday after reading the interview.

Bill said...

On 21-down, you showed the answer at "PLOT" but the obvious and correct answer is "PLOY" as pertaining to Gamer's Maneuver. Always a good job though, Bravo

Anonymous said...

The crossword for 7/2/12. The black blanks make a smiley face. Has to be intentional!. Winston-Salem Journal.