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A Shelburne Father-Daughter Duo Creates Crossword Puzzles Worthy of the 'New York Times'


Published November 15, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Greg and Grace Warrington - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Greg and Grace Warrington

When Grace Warrington arrived for the inaugural meeting of the Champlain Valley Union High School crossword club as a first-year student in fall 2022, she and her dad had already successfully completed every New York Times daily crossword puzzle for nearly a year. Grace brought with her a stack of puzzles she and her dad had created. "She came in beaming," club adviser Charlie MacFadyen said.

But the weekly club meetings rarely attracted more than two or three students. Often, they included only Grace and MacFadyen. On those days, Grace said, the agenda had just one item: "He does my puzzles."

Now a sophomore, Grace continues to drop off puzzles for MacFadyen. She and her dad, University of Vermont math professor Greg Warrington, have been constructing crosswords together for nearly two years — a "fun challenge," Greg said, that evolved from their evening ritual of solving the Times crossword together. (Their streak remains intact.)

In September, after 24 rejections, the father and daughter sold their first crossword to the New York Times.

Grace doesn't recall any hugging or screaming upon hearing the news. "I'm not much of a screamer," she said.

"I just got a big smile on my face," Greg said. They did call her grandparents, avid solvers who regularly give them feedback on their puzzles.

Grace, who turned 16 last month, is not the youngest person to collaborate on a Times puzzle. Eight-year-old Harrison Walden and his dad, Byron, of California, cocreated the 2020 Father's Day puzzle titled "Animal Crossings." Sixty-five other constructors have made their debut in the Times before age 20, according to XWord Info, a website that analyzes Times data. Daniel Larsen of Bloomington, Ind., was the youngest. He was 13 years and 4 months old when, after eight rejections, the Times published his first puzzle in 2017.

The Warringtons have cracked an exclusive club. Of the roughly 200 crossword puzzles it receives each week, the Times accepts between 3 and 5 percent. Associate puzzle editor Christina Iverson helps with the initial sorting. Obvious rejects include puzzles with themes that have already appeared and constructors who don't follow the basic rules, such as keeping black squares to a minimum and creating a symmetrical grid with overall interlock, meaning no section of the grid is completely disconnected from everything else.

Puzzles that make the first cut are reviewed by a small group of editors. Then, once a week, all six puzzle editors spend two and a half to three hours in a Google Meet call discussing the finalists, Iverson said. Before a crossword is accepted, puzzle editor Will Shortz reads every word in its grid aloud during the meeting.

The Warringtons' puzzle was selected for a Saturday, the day the newspaper publishes its most challenging crosswords. "It had a lot of fun entries in the longest spots, and it was very clean," Iverson said. By "clean," she means free of short answers that are obscure abbreviations or initials instead of actual words.

The puzzle hasn't been scheduled for publication yet but will likely run in the spring, Iverson said.

Other puzzle editors have noticed the Warringtons, as well. The father and daughter submitted a puzzle for the spring tournament of Boswords, a Boston-based league that attracts crossword illuminati. Though it was not selected, their puzzle was among the best, Boswords codirector John Lieb said. So the directors invited them to create one for the fall tournament, which has attracted 1,200 competitors.

"I was impressed by how interlocking everything was," Boswords codirector Andrew Kingsley said last month in a live-stream video discussion about the Warringtons' fall puzzle. "There are just so few black squares. It's a very cool grid shape."

"And on top of it all, with that paucity of black," guest solver Mike Glennon added, "I think there was only two clues that struck me as just rank crossword-ese. And one of them was clued in a new and unique way."

A video recording of Glennon solving the puzzle played on the screen while the group talked — a bit like a highlight reel playing as coaches and athletes discuss a game. Upon learning how the Warringtons work — Grace constructs the grid, and her dad writes the clues — Kingsley said, "This grid looks like it was made by someone with decades of experience. And yet you haven't been on Earth that long ... What's your process like?"

"Trial and error," Grace said.

Greg and Grace Warrington - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Greg and Grace Warrington

Grace builds puzzles by creating a 15-by-15-square grid using the Crossword Compiler software. She puts in the black squares first — about 30 of them for a themeless puzzle, her favorite kind to make. Next, she enters the longest words and phrases she wants to include and continues to fill the grid, assisted by XWord Info's online word list.

When it's going well, she can finish a grid in an hour. When it's not, it can take weeks. If her parents see her close her laptop, she said, "They know the next words out of my mouth are going to be, 'My puzzle's not working.'"

The process can be frustrating, she said, but it's fun. "There's just something about the letters interlocking that makes me happy."

To write clues, Greg consults dictionaries and Wikipedia. He considers the different meanings of words and brainstorms clever wordplay. For the word "feed," he explained via email, "you could clue it as a noun ('Oats or hay') or in terms of technology ('Signal for a television') or metaphorically ('Gratify, as an ego')."

For the word "bocce" in their Boswords puzzle, Greg offered the clue: "Game of throwns?"

The New York Times crosswords get progressively harder Monday through Saturday. Grace starts each day's puzzle when it is released online, at 10 p.m. the night before. She often completes the Monday and Tuesday puzzles herself. Her record time on a Monday crossword is three minutes and 29 seconds.

Any puzzles she doesn't finish, she and her dad tackle together the next evening. They don't allow themselves to research any answers. "I absolutely refuse to look anything up," Grace said. Knowing patterns of letters helps, she said. So does knowing commonly used puzzle words. "If you see a clue with 'eagle' in it," she said, "the answer is going to be A-E-R-I-E."

An analog kid in a digital world, Grace likes Latin, classic novels and old albums. She collects dictionaries and carries one to school each day. She doesn't Tweet — or whatever you do on X — Snap or yeet.

"Oh, God!" she said when her dad offered that last one — it means to chuck or throw — as an example of modern slang that she would not put in a puzzle. She does, however, understand the importance of including fresh, current words and phrases. She keeps a list of those she likes, such as "Barbenheimer" — a portmanteau of two hot movies released on the same day in July.

Since the Times accepted their puzzle, Grace and her dad have submitted two or three more. They've sent a similar number to the Los Angeles Times, and Grace would consider the Washington Post, she said, but she holds the New York Times in particularly high esteem.

"That's the one that I've been solving for a while now. It's the one my grandparents have been solving for decades. It's the one my dad has been solving for years, and it's probably the biggest crossword puzzle publication out there, so it does hold a certain..." She didn't finish.

Cachet? Gravitas?

"I'll think of the word eventually," she said.


by Grace Warrington



The original print version of this article was headlined "Double Crossed | A Shelburne father-daughter duo creates crossword puzzles worthy of the New York Times"

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