Editor’s Notes


Kevin Wald takes puzzling to another level.

By Amy Braverman Puma

Photography by Erick Delgado


Kevin Wald’s nom at the National Puzzlers’ League is Ucaoimhu, pronounced OOH-kev-ooh. He describes how he constructed it: “My real name is Kevin Wald, which can be split up as Kev in W ald. Ald is an archaic form of the word old; so you take an old-style W, namely two Us, and take Kev as it’s spelled in the original Irish spelling of my name (Caoimhghin or Caoimhin), which is Caoimh, and ‘Caoimh in UU’ is Ucaoimhu.”

If you followed that explanation, then you might be able to solve the University-themed cryptic crossword that Wald, SM’94, PhD’99, created for Lite of the Mind. Wald, who studied mathematical logic at Chicago and answers clients’ questions at Ab Initio Software, LLC, in Lexington, Massachusetts, constructs puzzles in his spare time.

He specializes in cryptic crosswords, where each clue is a puzzle in itself, solved using wordplay such as anagrams, homophones, charades (two smaller words form a new one: port and ion form portion), curtailments (chop off the last letter of a word: badge from badger), deletions (remove a letter: caper from camper), containers (insert a word inside another: try and aged form tragedy), and hidden words (words embedded in the clue, as dint is here). The clues hint at the wordplay sought, so the word scramble, for example, tips you off that the answer is an anagram.

Popular in Great Britain, cryptic crosswords appear in only a few U.S. publications, including the Nation; the New York Post, which borrows the London Times’s puzzle; and, of course, the National Puzzlers’ League magazine, the Enigma. Last year, the first time he kept a record, Wald constructed 12 such puzzles. This year he’s on pace to double that number: ours was No. 11, with six months left to go. Another was for some puzzler friends he met up with in DC at the Washington Post’s annual Post Hunt, which sends participants around the capital solving brainteasers. (He also partakes in the MIT Mystery Hunt, where teams solve similar riddles, but there’s less “getting out of your chair and actually doing something.”)

The Magazine’s puzzle took Wald “about a week and a half,” he says, “faster than I usually do it.” A computer aided him, but mostly for word processing, “to try out different letters in different boxes.” He also used it “to find particular words that fit the letters already there in the grid. I have some online word lists, and I use the UNIX command grep a lot” to find words that fit a particular pattern.

Wald quickly conceived this puzzle’s theme, and he added a challenge: some letters fall outside the grid. It sounds complicated, but the solution cleverly reveals the path Wald often took on campus and why he was headed that way. Not that I finished it. In my house doing a puzzle means helping a 21-month-old insert a wood cutout of a dog into its proper space on a board. But my colleague Laura Demanski, AM’94, a National Puzzlers’ League member who introduced me to Wald and provided the wordplay definitions earlier in this column, showed me her finished grid.

Unlike my son, Wald was never too into jigsaw puzzles, if you can consider board cutouts baby jigsaws. But his family in New York subscribed to Games magazine, so he’s been teasing his brain for quite some time. “I didn’t write much as a kid,” he adds—as in, he didn’t construct crosswords after school every day. Maybe my family needs some new goals.