I hate to brag, really I do, but this year I made a major contribution to the world of crosswords. All I had to do was quit trying to make a major contribution to the world of crosswords.
It's a little humbling to realize that the best thing I could do was nothing, but that's exactly how it worked out. I started XWord Info in 2007 as an attempt to archive and organize NYT crosswords, highlight ones I thought were special, and run a few interesting statistical queries. The site was moderately successful, it got lots of traffic, and importantly to me, there was an effort to display each puzzle as close to the canonical print version as possible. No other site did that. No other site tracked puzzles by constructor either. There were plenty of other unique features.
Still, the site never really became part of the daily puzzle conversation. Bloggers and commenters mostly ignored it. Traffic was steady but stuck at around 2 million hits per month. Income was never quite enough for me to quit my day job. More importantly, it continued to be work. Will Shortz and his cadre of constructors kept innovating and XWord Info had to scramble to stay on top of each new wrinkle A small contingent of readers kept insisting on telling me my site sucked for one reason or another. I assured them the web had plenty of other URLs they would enjoy visiting.
Finally, I had enough. I wanted to go back to enjoying puzzles for their own sake, so I quit. More precisely, since a few people actually relied on the site to do their jobs for one reason or another, I announced the site was shutting down at the end of this year, giving them enough time to make alternate plans.
I got a few nice emails from people thanking me for the work I'd done and one or two from people who wondered if someone else could take over the project. The scope of XWord Info is huge, though, and it uses about a dozen different technologies. Nobody sane would want to dive in.
Enter Jeff Chen. He not only wanted to take it over but since he's a writer as well as a constructor, he wanted a forum to comment on each puzzle and saw this as an opportunity. Our conversation went something like this:
Jeff: Not much. But it's all just a big puzzle, right? I like puzzles.
I was sold. I handed the digital keys to Jeff, and let him run with it.
We have a shared OneNote where I write down ideas I think might be useful, and where Jeff keeps track of questions he needs to understand, but otherwise it's his show now, and I couldn't be more pleased.
My dry old site is suddenly vital. There are well over 9 million hits a month now. In my assuredly biased opinion, it has become the best crossword site on the planet. Jeff is an engaging new voice. He adds his own commentary to every puzzle from the perspective of someone who deeply understands and who deeply loves crosswords. On top of that, he has been able to get constructor comments most days as well. (One of the standard blogs has begun doing that too. I don't think Jeff intentionally copied that idea, he had talked to me about constructor comments from our earliest conversations, so it's rather a case of simultaneous invention.)
The site now combines many of the best features of a database and a blog. There are no reader comments and there never will be on XWord Info. I like to think that benefits the other blogs because readers who disagree with Jeff will have to go elsewhere to say so. WordPlay is the most likely blog to benefit. The vast majority of non-search inbound links come from WordPlay. Very few come from other blogs.
Even better, Will Shortz contributes his own thoughts to each puzzle. That turns out to be fascinating and unique and it will be the subject of my next blog post.