The Bee Keeper
A conversation with Sam Ezersky (Engr ’17), the editor of The New York Times’ buzzy word game
Sam Ezersky (Engr ’17) double majored in mechanical engineering and economics—but his passion has always been puzzles. He sold his first crossword to The New York Times when he was in high school and landed a job there after graduating from UVA. Now, he runs Spelling Bee, the Times’ daily word game that challenges players to make as many words as possible from a set of seven letters. Millions of players take on the challenge. Ezersky spoke to Virginia Magazine about the popularity of Spelling Bee during the pandemic, his best puzzling tips and the key moment on Grounds that kicked off his career. He also crafted a custom UVA-themed anagram puzzle to challenge your mind—and your UVA knowledge.
How did you become the Spelling Bee editor?
I have been into crosswords and other word puzzles for genuinely almost as long as I can remember. I’ve been solving them or similar puzzles since I was 5, 6 years old. On long car rides, a normal person might be playing on their Game Boy, which I also did, or just like playing I Spy in the back seat. I was drawing up little crossword grids in crayon. Of course, they were not Times-caliber publishable things. I started submitting puzzles [to The Times] as a teenager. And then I actually had my first puzzle published in the Times when I was still in high school.
I continued to make puzzles in my time at UVA, expecting it to just be like a passion project that was developing. And then, frankly, [being at the] right place at the right time. I was all set to go work in an engineering career, and then my dream job opened up and went directly to me.
Will Shortz (Law ’77) himself, the longtime editor of the Times crossword, gave his keynote speech at the law school in 2016, and I happened to be in Charlottesville at the time. I actually point-blank reached out to him and was like, hey, do you want to get together? And to my surprise, he was like, oh yeah, I’d love to come over. Let’s talk puzzles. So with UVA right there in the background, that hangout session kind of evolved into what paved my way to my career now, that very moment in Charlottesville in May of 2016.
Can you walk us through the process of how you create a Spelling Bee?
It’s too much credit to say that I just sit back in a chair and come up with these. I have tools at my disposal. I have a database of every possible puzzle that could be created, right? My goal, which is why a game like this needs an editor in general rather than a computer, is to actually come up with the good, enjoyable puzzles. I start with the pangrams, actually, because that is the linchpin of the puzzle. If the pangram is not something that my audience can even figure out in the first place or is enjoyable to figure out, then what’s the point of the whole puzzle? You don’t want there to be too many words. You don’t want there to be too few words, and you don’t want the longer words to be so hard that it’s going to be impossible for anyone to get the “genius” because the longer words teeter on technical.
I have a testing panel who gives me excellent feedback on, what the heck is this word? There’s a lot of discussion around the word list on a given day. My goal is, you don’t just want every last word in the dictionary to appear in this puzzle, or nobody’s ever going to get to “genius,” right? One person’s wheelhouse is another person’s esoterica. I know that at this point, everybody has a word or 10 words that they’ve like tried before and they’re like, why the heck isn’t that on the list? And it’s all subjective at the end of the day, right?
What are the most common “why wasn’t this word accepted?” complaints? What are the most common “why was this word accepted?” complaints?
I will receive complaints that this puzzle, for all the foods it allows, it clearly doesn’t recognize science, or something like that. And then I’ll get a similar complaint from someone saying, this is so darn unfairly science-heavy, which leaves me in the dust, but why does it not allow any of these foods that I know? The most common complaints tend to be around words that people recognize from doing crosswords over and over again, that I don’t like to add in the Spelling Bee because I believe it’s a different experience.
Sometimes I spend up to an hour going back and forth on just a single word alone, going, like well, this is damned if I do, damned if I don’t. People are absolutely going to know this, and they’re going to flame me on the internet. But if I do allow it, people are going to be going, what the heck is that?
This game has been such a source of entertainment and joy and community for people during the pandemic. What has that been like?
Absolutely staggering, to be completely honest with you. People love this. Spelling Bee, in my mind, has stood for a larger period, a time where we craved so much, where we had to be inside our apartments or physical spaces and couldn’t go out and do anything, at a time where we needed a diversion from the daily news, out comes this game that is just telling you, hey, you’re doing great. Keep going.
I’ve received so many touching stories along the way, just about somebody who, while they were in the U.S. and their parents lived abroad, Spelling Bee was a great way for them to stay connected. They would always compare their answers every day from, you know, time zones far apart. Someone would get up super early while the other person was going to bed in their own time zone, just so they could have this daily connection.
Knowing the larger implications of this being more than just a game is what really drives the passion that fuels me to be my best. At the end of the day, knowing people’s reactions to this game and how much it means to them is what makes it so lovely for me and makes me have so much fun with it, because I want to continue to infuse that passion to recycle it back to all these solvers out there who just love doing what I’m doing.
Do you have tips for people who want to get started with the Bee or who just want to get better at it?
I’d say first and foremost, in a sphere where word games tend to be daunting or “for word people,” you know more than you think you do. And you get to set your own goals playing this game. Whether you are a lexicographer by trade or you don’t even like to read, you know words. You get to see your progress as you solve some words, and I’d say, this is extremely cliché, but you get better over time. Your brain molds to seeing—it’s like the Tetris effect. It’s when you play Tetris for so long you just know how the shapes are going to fit in. Your brain automatically kind of has that muscle memory to know, like OK, you’ve got to turn this log around. It’s going to fit really nicely in there. So with something like Spelling Bee, your brain is naturally just going to get better at recognizing certain blends of letters and word patterns.
If you’re stumped, if you’re like, I know there are a lot more words there but I’m not seeing them, or you’re actively trying to get the “genius,” I like putting a few letters at once that you know are going to be blends, even if they’re not a prefix or a suffix. Like you know that the letters C and L followed by a vowel are either going to start a word or be embedded somewhere in the word. It’s building those and recognizing those patterns over time that I’d say really helps you up your game.
My single favorite tip is the vaguest one. It sounds the most unhelpful, but I promise it’s the most helpful tip of them all: No matter how experienced you are at this game, come back to it. Take a break. Stumped? Put it down for 15 minutes. Come back. You will be shocked at how much you can see that you didn’t see prior. That goes for all sorts of word games. It’s an incredible phenomenon. Your brain’s just going to jump to a different path that you hadn’t considered before, and it’s nice to just have that fresh look.
Many people do puzzles to relax. Puzzles are your work. What do you do to relax?
I joke, and I’m half serious, that I have an awful work-life balance, because I do puzzles in my spare time too. I can’t help it. I am in such a fortunate position where what I do for fun is also my job. I’m a sucker for a good word game. I’m part of the Wordle team, but I deliberately am not looking at the master list that I know we have for Wordle, because I still play Wordle every day. It’s actually the very first thing I do when I open my eyes in the morning. My puzzle brain is always on. There’s just like a back burner going on in my brain that’s just conducive to anagrams and letter patterns.
But what do I actually do for spare time? When I’m not into puzzles, the next thing I’m big into, I’m a total sports junkie—baseball, basketball, football, soccer. I would put myself at an amateur level, but I am an avid cook. That’s probably my next big foray—I like getting into some big, complicated recipe on a Saturday when I’m doing nothing else.
Do you have a favorite Spelling Bee puzzle?
My all-time favorite puzzle had a Z in the center, and was like, OK, this is going to be an extremely intimidating puzzle, so it’s got a freaking Z in the center. I want these to be fun. I want you to enjoy yourself and have these delightful, smile-inducing aha! moments. It also had multiple pangrams—razoring and organizing. Then there’s also words like zigzag and zigzagging and zinnia and organza. Gonzo. You’re going to find 30 freaking words that have a Z in it, which feels impossible. I think it’s going to be really satisfying for you to piece together.
What did you do at UVA to help hone your craft with puzzles?
I did make a weekly crossword for the Cav Daily for my final two years, and that was a lovely opportunity, because at the time I was actually already making freelance crosswords for the Times and other venues. I was always kind of bringing the mission of: Hey, puzzles are fun, and we young millennial people can solve them and enjoy them too.
How has UVA played a role in your life since graduation?
I’m still an avid UVA sports fan. I will watch the basketball games on the ACC network back from ESPN. When you see somebody walking around in that UVA hoodie, you’re just like, all right, that’s a real one. It’s nice to be able to be affiliated with that as well. Whenever I find out that somebody went to UVA at any point in time, it’s always just like a special little nod back at you. You know the experience that I’ve also lived, and it’s really cool that we’re cut from the same cloth.
Twisting One’s Words
Below is a set of puzzle questions inspired by Spelling Bee and similar anagramming wordplay. The answers, in one way or another, are related to the University. Can you solve them all?
Beginning with some Spelling Bee-style wordplay:
Next, can you find the college majors—all offered at UVA—hidden in the phrases below?
Some are official names for the majors, while others are more informal:
And now, for some harder miscellany:
Finally, a stumper for the experts: Take the 6-letter name for one of UVA’s graduate schools. Drop the first letter.
Take the 3-letter field of study for another of UVA’s graduate schools. Flip the last letter upside down, so that it becomes a different letter.
You should be left with eight letters in total. Anagram them to name one of UVA’s longtime libraries.