LARAMIE — The New York Times’ crossword puzzle is a cultural fixture and a daily habit for millions of Americans, with completion of the week’s hardest edition, published on Saturdays, a sign of crossword puzzle mastery.
But one Laramie local, having devoted himself to the craft of the crossword, has made the jump from master solver to budding builder, and now he’s seeing his own puzzles in publications across the country.
Adrian Johnson, who graduated from Laramie High School in 2017, decided a couple years ago that he wanted to become proficient at solving the New York Times puzzles, particularly the Saturday edition. But solving came easily, so he decided he needed another challenge.
“I got it in a month-and-a-half, and then I thought, how do I make these?” he said.
His most recent puzzle was published by Universal — and printed in the Laramie Boomerang — on July 21. Johnson’s puzzles have also appeared during the last few months in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and, yes, the New York Times.
“The Times has the most prestige, but it’s almost just as satisfying to get fun ones in the local paper,” he said.
Another 10 or so puzzles are currently awaiting publication. Depending on the publication, the wait time can be months, and sometimes he’ll have just a couple days’ notice. Some crossword puzzle editors accept queries that include a puzzle theme, while others want submissions of completed puzzles.
Johnson has had a number of hobbies over the years, but none has quite captured his attention like crossword puzzles, especially when he started constructing his own.
“I tend to go in and out of things pretty quickly, but this is something I feel like I could stay in for a while,” he said.
He used Microsoft Word for his earliest puzzles before quickly graduating to crossword-specific software. He keeps a list on his phone that includes ideas from conversations and television shows. Answers and clues also draw from literature, history, music, sports and popular culture.
“I have the sense of humor of a 5-year-old, and I like the imagination that comes with it,” he joked.
Many crossword puzzles have a theme, which are playful entries that add another layer to the puzzle. Johnson strives for fun answers, word play and delivering an “aha moment” for solvers.
“There are really no constraints, or things you can or cannot do inherently,” he said. “It’s a puzzle, but it’s also an art.”
While solvers strive to complete the hardest puzzles, Johnson said he enjoys building easy puzzles, as well as hard ones.
“There is a right answer, and you want people to get there,” he said. “The goal is not to stump people.”
Johnson said his goals include more publications in the New York Times, collaborations with other puzzle makers and eventually writing puzzles for crossword competitions.
He graduated from Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, last spring with a degree in international relations.