One field down from the obligatory Crossword and Mini, the Games section of The New York Times publishes three daily word puzzles, the wildly popular Spelling Bee, the phenomenon Wordle, and Letter Boxed, a Godiva among M&M’s.
A Letter Boxed puzzle consists of 12 letters arranged around the four sides of a square, waiting to be combined, dominoes-style, into strings of words. The rules are simple: consecutive letters must come from different sides of the square; the last letter of one word must be the first letter of the next word.
Letter Boxed is handcrafted daily by Sam Ezersky, 27, a 2017 mechanical-engineering grad from the University of Virginia. “I’m an extremely left-brain-problem person,” he told me on a recent Zoom call from his new home, in snowed-in Buffalo. “My brain works in numbers.” Without divulging stats, he confirms that Spelling Bee, which he edits, is “far more popular” than Letter Boxed.
If you love watching words crystallize and dissolve kaleidoscopically before your eyes, Letter Boxed has your name on it. “Par” for a given clutch of letters ranges from four to six. But Ezersky’s published solutions are invariably just two words—the words he reverse-engineered into his scramble.
“Letter Boxed is a create-your-own-adventure game,” says Ezersky, who fell prey to a fill-it-in puzzle in a Baltimore barbershop when he was about six years old and never looked back. “You can try and find the two-word solution, you can try and break par, you can try just to find some cool words and do with it as you will.” A Rorschach test!
But “the” two-word solution, it’s a chimera. Often, there’s more than one. Ezersky doesn’t obsess about keeping track. “Constructing Letter Boxed is more an art than a science,” he says. “I want the two words to feel fun and human. I want it to be a puzzle you smile at when you complete it. It takes a human designer to facilitate that.”
Some two-word solutions please for their economy—just the one repeated letter to bridge the first term and the second (PACKING – GLOWER). Some read like miniature haiku (GRAVITAS – SUBZERO). Some tickle with their asymmetry (OWL – LUMBERJACK), goofiness (MUCHO – OBLIGATION), a seasonal note (ROMANTIC – CHERUB, pre–Valentine’s Day), or a categorical imperative (YOU – UNSCRAMBLE). Sometimes there’s even a one-word answer (PYROTECHNICAL, on the Fourth of July; LEXICOGRAPHY, just because), but Ezersky doesn’t publish those.
It helps that unlike Spelling Bee, with its curated word lists, Letter Boxed has a lexicon that is oceanic. “We’re powered by the Oxford English Dictionary,” Ezersky explains. That’s a cache of north of 600,000 entries, 171,476 of them supposedly “in current use.” So, where Ezersky’s answer one day recently was SKYLIGHT – TOPAZ, a demon solver who posts daily at letterboxed.aliceyliang.com knocked her followers’ socks off with ZYGAPOPHYSIS – SKYLIGHT. For the record, the z-word denotes, per Google, “one of the articular processes of a vertebra”; for further details, consult Gray’s Anatomy.
Did Ezersky see that one coming? “I confess that I did not,” he replies. “I want solutions to be pretty darn accessible when you figure them out. I don’t want you to say, ‘What?’”
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL.He lives in Hawaii