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A Picture Puzzle:

June 22, 2006 By:
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Ellen Ripstein and "The New York Times" Crossword editor Will Shortz (standing, second from right) are game for "Wordplay."
Ellen Ripstein doesn't have one cross word for The New York Times.

Far from it, she says; she enjoys it.

But, oh, does The New York Times have crosswords for Ellen Ripstein.

No problem, she says; she enjoys them.

Easy to see why. Every day's a down day for the very up Ripstein, who lets it rip in a prolix way as test crossword puzzle solver for the Times.

Now, this is her time: Ripstein is one of the stars of a new action-adventure drama in which the 007s of the world don't number into the heroics: Words do.

The play's the thing: "Wordplay," a compelling account of the crossword puzzle world, opens Friday, June 23, at Ri_ _ thea_ _ _ _ (four across the region).

What's a six-letter short word for what it's all about? Shortz, as in Will Shortz, Times puzzle editor and NPR puzzle-master.

But that's only part of the whole that makes "Wordplay" - the ultimate picture puzzle - so well worth it. Among the pieces of the puzzle that spell sparkling entertainment is Ripstein, the self-described "Jewish Susan Lucci" of players who, after 18 attempts at winning the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, took it all home in 2001.

Chai time? Let 'er rip, Ripstein? Oh, by the way, don't attempt to write that last description of her in ink; use pencil. "It's the former Susan Lucci," she says with a laugh of finally winning.

Chief Fan
With its focus on competition, "Wordplay" gets jiggy with … wit. It even gets the presidential seal of approval. One major fan depicted on screen is President Clinton, whose own way with words spells an impeachable sense of charm.

Among those taking the time to do the Times are those with little time on their hands. Some have gloves; indeed, that's the case with Mike Mussina, Stanford-educated with a degree in economics, whose usual view of inflation is that of his fast-ball rising on its way to home plate.

Don't expect to hear the New York Yankees starting pitcher balk about baseball's difficulties: "If you can handle the puzzle in the Times, you can handle any puzzle they throw at you."

Before she struck gold with a great job at the Times, Ripstein had a great job as a statistician. Statistically, Jews don't figure all that prominently in the wordplay of "Wordplay."

Not that they're idle players. "All of the test solvers are Jewish," says Ripstein of her colleagues at the Times.

Research her bio and see that Ripstein has always been unquestionably good at coming up with answers: "I was senior researcher for 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' for five years."

But even she comes up blank on some words - not because Ripstein doesn't know them, but because she knows what they mean all too well.

The Manhattan resident was especially down on one word she came across. What's the Yiddish for puzzled? "Will had used the word 'schm_ _ _' in a puzzle - it was on Saturday."

Never on a Shabbat? "I said no way can this go in."

After all, in Yiddish, no matter how common the use, the word is as priapic a puzzler as they come. "It is just not a nice word," says Ripstein.

Of course, even wordsmith Ripstein can be more of a wordjones sometimes, too. Her understanding of what schm_ _ _ meant as a younger woman was off the road. But, given the context in which she heard it, it's understandable: "I used to think it meant 'bad driver.' "

Such a controversial member of the Yiddish language isn't the only one that drives the puzzles. "You see mensch a lot; sabra,too," says Ripstein of clues.

So Yiddish isn't exactly chopped liver for crossword fanatics. "You see the word 'schmaltz' sometimes."

Oy vey! "Yes, that too," she chuckles.

But "Wordplay" also plays up the fact that family is no cryptic component of the crossword mishpocah. "You see these people once a year; it's sort of an extended family," says Ripstein of the "crossword cousins club" of friends gathered for the annual championship.

But she doesn't champion just any word play. "I never got Soduku," Ripstein says of the Japanese puzzle-cum-American phenomenon that has many fans spinning their wheels figuring them out.

And what's an eight-letter word for another game? "I don't play 'Scrabble,' " says the player. "Crosswords are about actual knowledge," others are more attuned to those who are game for chance.

And when it comes to game, crosswords are Olympian in status. "It works as a sport" - and that's borne out by the intense play given it in "Wordplay."

When it comes to her own puzzle predilection, Ripstein goes both ways: "I read both ways," she says of down and across.

Who would give her the best reading on screen? Which actress would be the most apt to play her if "Wordplay" went fictionalized? "Some people say I resemble Amy Irving," notes Ripstein with a sense of tongue-in-cheek of the prospects.

Or is that mother-tongue in cheek? Because more than anything, Ripstein is hoping that this fine documentary will cross people's movie-going paths, and they'll better understand the world of "Wordplay."

After all, what better way to publicize such a a movie, she answers, than by …

Word of mouth.

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