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How this Jeopardy-winning 'word nerd' is revolutionizing the crossword industry

How this Jeopardy-winning ‘word nerd’ is revolutionizing the crossword industry

Erik Agard, USA TODAY’s crossword editor and a “Jeopardy” winner, is changing the world of crossword puzzles. The 28-year-old from Gaithersburg, Maryland, a “word nerd” growing up, is known for being one of the most inclusive – some say revolutionary – crossword editors in mainstream puzzles.

What does that mean?

Well, Monday’s print puzzle, appropriately named “Shakeup,” included clues about U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher’s jersey number (ONE); the star of “If Beale Street Could Talk” (KIKI Layne) and Sandra Oh’s quote, “It’s an honor just to be ____” (ASIAN).

“We do our best to make sure all kinds of folks can enjoy the puzzles and hopefully see themselves in them,” Agard says.
Erik Agard, USA TODAY crossword editor.
What about other puzzles? “I would say judging by their contents, historically most mainstream crosswords are aimed at someone who really, really, really likes the Beatles and has never heard of Mariah Carey,” he says.

In 2018, Agard started the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory Facebook group to help develop more diverse puzzle creators. His mission tops the page: “It’s often said that talent is equally distributed, but opportunities are not. This group’s foundational intent is to rectify that inequity for women, people of color, and folks from other groups underrepresented in the puzzle world.”

Agard is biracial (Black and white) and majored in African American studies at the University of Maryland. He and fellow editor Amanda Rafkin work with and edit more than 40 puzzle constructors. They complete about seven a week.

In 2020, 69% of USA TODAY puzzles were built by female, nonbinary or gender nonconforming constructors, compared to 25% for the New York Times and 19% for the Los Angeles Times, according to a spreadsheet kept by “puzzle enthusiast” Matt Gritzmacher.
USA TODAY recently launched a new crossword app ($5.99 a month, unlimited puzzles, download here!), so I emailed with Agard to learn more about the editor behind the clues.

How did you get into crossword editing? This isn’t a well-worn career path.

My high school math teacher Mr. (David) Stein is a big crossword guy and would sometimes tell us about cool puzzles, which caught my interest at a time when I wasn’t that passionate about, or good at, anything else. I remember being in the computer lab playing USA TODAY puzzles during one of my other classes. Eventually I realized that the puzzles I was solving were made by people and that I could be one of those people, and with a lot of mentorship from various folks in the community, I had my first crossword published in 2011. Ten years and many puzzles later, I feel very lucky to get to edit for USA TODAY.

How does a crossword editor work? I know different people construct the crossword.

The constructor does most of the heavy lifting – they come up with the idea, they fit together the answers in the grid (usually using a computer program – it’s much harder by hand), and then they write the clues for those answers. My job is to help elevate their puzzle by making sure the idea works, vetoing any answers that are too obscure, revising clues to make them clearer and funner, and so on.

You are known for editing an inclusive crossword. Do you think of it that way?

It’s funny, I can’t remember ever saying “I make inclusive puzzles” but it seems to have become my brand. (It’s probably worth asking who that came from, whose voices are heard in that conversation.) I personally try to write and edit with a Black audience in mind.

How many constructors do you work with? How many are women or people of color?

We work with a roster of more than 40, some of the best constructors and people out there. White women are amply represented; less so for women of color. There are many groups that are absent or underrepresented on our roster and in our industry, for example Black and Indigenous people. My job is also to help fix that.

How much time does it take to construct a crossword? To edit one?

On average, several hours for either. I’ve edited a puzzle in an hour, but I’ve also had one clue take me an hour, so it depends.

What is your best advice for tackling a crossword?

Look for the stuff you know, and once you have those letters filled in, try the crossing answers. Even just having one letter in an answer can make it a lot easier to get.

Are there go-to words or clues you use often? What is the most over-used crossword clue?

Things with useful vowel placements (Erie, oboes, ogres, the phrase “I see”) tend to come up a lot. We reference Oreos way too much for them to not be paying us.

Do you have a favorite clue?

Speaking of, I think I peaked with the clue (“Cookie that some people eat with mustard”) that caused Hoda Kotb to eat an Oreo dipped in mustard on the “Today” show. I just don’t know how I can ever surpass that. That was awesome.

Do people challenge your answers? Have you made an error?

One time someone direct messaged me on Instagram to say that, actually, saunas don’t have steam, they have dry heat. Or something like that, I don’t know, I think whatever they said was technically correct but out of sheer pettiness I refused to commit it to memory.

When you do a crossword as a player, do you know all the answers, or do you use letters in the puzzles for clues like a regular person?


Regular person. I could probably do one of my own puzzles and not know all the answers without using letters.

Do you still do crosswords for fun? Which ones? How long does it take you?

Too many to list! Mostly indie crosswords – many of the USA TODAY constructors, for example, have their own websites, full of fun and challenging puzzles.

I struggled last year with injury and burnout, and for a while was doing crosswords much less than usual. It’s been really nice finding my way back to the joy of it, and I even set my personal best for a 15×15 puzzle in May (49

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