I began doing the New York Times Mini Crossword during the pandemic, and after a year of practice, I could proudly complete it in under a minute almost every time. It was a solitary experience, a permanent fixture in my routine where I could compete with myself from the comfort of my couch.
A year or so later, I began doing the crossword during breakfast at my girlfriend’s house. To my girlfriend and their roommates’ dismay, this meant I required full concentration, no interruptions, and an occasional pat on the back whenever my time shamefully surpassed 60 seconds. They ogled with contempt, insisting that my obsession was just another iteration of my strange habits. Slowly, however, they became more interested, asking questions here and there. My girlfriend started participating in the silent morning ritual, waiting for me to finish the Mini before even talking to me. Suddenly, when Wordle, the global sensation, was purchased by the New York Times, my friends succumbed to the temptation of the New York Times Games. Aha! I got them!
Eventually, we were all doing the crossword. Sometimes in silence in the kitchen, our coffee mugs full and getting colder, and sometimes on our own- but always reporting back to our group chat to display our scores: “46 seconds today!” “How do you do it?” “Guys…I’m sorry, this is so shameful. Two minutes.”
The Mini then evolved into the “long one.” The same routine ensued. Deep into our obsession, we discovered that the New York Times crossword has a rather particular way of functioning. Mondays are the easiest, and the crossword increases in difficulty as the week goes on. Saturday is the hardest and, contrary to popular belief, Sunday has the same level of difficulty as Wednesday, but it is longer, so it appears to be more difficult. Sometimes, the crossword was a collaborative effort, with all of us around the kitchen table shouting four-letter words that start with “f” and have an “e” in the middle. We also eventually caught on to the New York Times’ cruciverbalists’ favourite words: “edam”, “ire”, “LGA”, and “emote”.
After a few weeks, it became obvious that the way we played and talked about our strategies reflected our personalities and sometimes even our values. For example, my friend Maddy refuses to do the crossword when it gets too difficult. She usually only does Monday’s and Tuesday’s, and stops when “it gets too upsetting.” As I came to learn, Maddy is terrific at taking care of herself and has boundaries that not even the New York Times can breach. My girlfriend Louise will painstakingly go through each clue and reflect on it until they find the correct word. They are thorough, clever, and have impeccable timing. Iza does not engage in our childish tomfoolery. She is a busy woman and has no time for that, except when we need her expertise in cocktail names and Hollywood stars.
My strategy differs from those of my friends. I go quick, not wasting time on difficult clues and surfing through the easy words. I recognize patterns and remember old clues, using my experience completing the crossword to guide me through each new board. How I go about the crossword sums up how I go about life: Integrating what is new and what is familiar while trying my best to figure out what it all means when I put it together.
Our friendship is complex and full of layers, but the crossword is a time where our personalities are so distilled that we can truly appreciate the wonders of each other’s brains. Although I still think my strategy is the best (no one has ever beat my 22-second record on the Mini), I love nothing more than hearing Maddy scream, “I actually know this one!” or seeing Louise rush to tell me that they actually beat me at the Mini this time—a rare occurrence, for the record.
It turns out that a simple game and daily habit has the power to showcase and complement the strong personalities of four McGill students looking to make it through breakups, midterms, and frigid Montreal winters. This small group of cruciverbalists can now confidently name “Dern from Hollywood” and navigate the infinite complexities of young adulthood and friendship.