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The University Magazine

Computer Science professor is on top, across and down

University Magazine - Spring 2008 Image
Zack Butler: professor, problem solver and cruciverbalist.

Zack Butler received a big clue about his future in 1995, when he received a voicemail message from Will Shortz, the legendary New York Times crossword puzzle editor.

“Will was captain of the U.S. Puzzle Team,” says Butler, computer science professor. “He handpicked me to be one of the four members to represent the U.S. He was calling to confirm my plane reservations to Romania to compete in the World Finals.”

 The U.S. team won that year and Butler finished fourth in the individual competition. Last October in Rio de Janeiro, Butler and the other members of the U.S. team pulled it out again, earning their 10th world championship. The types of puzzles the teams solve range from Sudoku to mazes to visual logic puzzles.

From as far back as he can remember, Butler has been solving puzzles. His mother competes every year in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Butler accompanied her when he was 14.

“I remember I didn’t do very well in the crossword portion. We also did some word play puzzles. I beat out almost everyone in the room. I was surprised.”

Butler’s skills at solving crossword puzzles have greatly improved. He finished second out of a field of 400 contenders in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2002.

It’s customary for the top three players to finish the final round on stage. Using large whiteboards, they solve the puzzles in front of an audience.

Butler is also a practicing cruciverbalist (one who writes crossword puzzles). It’s a sure bet he’s stumped a subscriber or two of The New York Times.

“Several of my crosswords have been published in the Tuesday and Thursday editions of the Times. Constructing crosswords helps me solve them faster. I write puzzles for the process because I think it’s fun.”

He likes to give his 4-Across and 20-Down as gifts, with his wife and students often the receivers of his entries.    

“I taught a robotics course last spring and my students would come to class working on crossword puzzles, so I decided to write one for them with a robotics theme. My students know I’m the puzzle guy.”

Kelly Downs