Fred Piscop in his home office

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By Lindsay Lennon

Turning a pastime into a profession is a fantasy for most. Puzzlemaster Fred Piscop ’70—who was in his 40s and working as a computer support technician when he started creating crosswords on the side—is the epitome of that lofty dream.

“In 1995, I got laid off and said, ‘To hell with this. I’ve had it with the nine-to-five. I’m just going to make puzzles for a living from now on,’” Piscop recalls, speaking from his home office on his native Long Island. “And very luckily, I was able to do it.”

Piscop started out creating cryptics, a tricky British style of puzzle that’s still his favorite to solve. In fact, he wrote the definitive book on it—Cryptic Crosswords and How to Solve Them—in 1998.

But his résumé is heavy on conventional American-style crosswords. He made his New York Times debut in 1993 in the paper’s first-ever weekday crossword to carry a constructor byline.

He has edited crosswords at USA Today and the Washington Post and contributes to Newsday.

He appeared in Wordplay, the 2006 documentary about crossword diehards, and has published several crossword books.

Thanks to a referral from puzzle legend Will Shortz, he even nabbed a commission from comedian Jon Stewart, who proposed to his now-wife in a custom crossword.

Now, nearly three decades in, Piscop’s gaze has shifted to his diverse vault of styles with the release of his latest collection, The Healthy Brain Book of Word Puzzles—as well as the popular “Split Decisions” game he’s created for the Times since 2013.

About a third of the new book is devoted to Split Decisions, which challenges solvers to find common letters among word pairs (e.g., “_ _AP_” and “_ _M I_” become ADAPT and ADMIT).

The remainder of the book offers five styles covering a range of tastes.

“Two By Two” features mini “crisscrosses,” where solvers must fill in a grid with consonants using only vowels as clues.

In “Clueless Crosswords,” players contend with blank squares to form seven-letter words, with multiple correct possibilities for each word—but only one solution to the grid.

The cover of the Healthy Brain Book of Word Puzzles

For word jumble fans, “Mixagrams” feature sets of four- and five-letter words mixed up in correct letter order (e.g., SHOELUPIX = HELIX and SOUP) which come together to answer the puzzle’s punny title question.

Similarly, in “Double Exposure,” solvers use common words among columns of letters to form phrases at the end. And cruciverbalists who love hints might enjoy “Bits and Pieces,” where sets of connected letters share crossword-esque clues.

Every type of game in The Healthy Brain Book was invented by Piscop’s childhood teacher, George Bredehorn, who led an experimental accelerated class at the local public school that covered fourth, fifth, and sixth grades in two years. (Piscop entered at age 8.)

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“I learned to think creatively,” Piscop recalls. “George kind of chucked all the standard curriculum and gave us more immediate, mind-expanding stuff.”

The new book is Piscop’s latest effort to expand the Split Decisions brand. An app is in the works, and he also shares occasional puzzles on his website.

But despite his broadening wordplay contributions, Piscop remains a celebrated creator of conventional crosswords—including monthly bonus puzzles for Times subscribers where, he says, “I cram in as much themed content as I can.” (November’s “Carving the Turkey” had 38 “carve”-related clues.)

Piscop Puzzles: A Sampling

These sample puzzles—intended for illustrative purposes only—are reprinted with permission of the publisher from The Healthy Brain Book of Word Puzzles by Fred Piscop (Puzzlewright, October 2022).

While Piscop leans into themes as a crossword creator, he’s indifferent toward them as a solver. One of his favorites is the themeless Newsday “Saturday Stumper”—which, he opines, is harder than the Times’ Saturday crossword.

And for his daily “go-to solve”—a morning ritual alongside coffee and oatmeal—Piscop turns to the Guardian and his old flame: the British cryptic.

Top: Photo by Uli Seit.

Editor’s note: The “C.U. Later!” crossword is a .pdf file and is intended for downloading in order to print and complete by hand. As such, it does not meet WCAG web accessibility standards.

Published December 16, 2022


Comments

  1. steve m - whitestone - brooklyn poly, Class of 1974

    i have been doing your crosswords for years. thanks for boosting my IQ with new words, trivia and mental processing.
    i got your autograph at kj farrells before they closed.

  2. Gene Farinacci

    Very impressive Fred. It’s really something what you have done over the years. You did it your way brother. Proud of you

  3. John Costello, Class of 1978

    Always enjoy racking my brain to finish Split Decisions…always tough to finish a few

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