How does one obtain such an illustrious job title as puzzle guru? Are they born, or is their art finely crafted over decades of gruelling work? The recipe is a little bit of both, it turns out. Ultimately, one must earn Puzzle Guru status, but some people, well, they’re just really damn good at puzzles. We sat down with John Chaneski, Puzzle Guru for NPR’s Ask Me Another, to find out more about what sounds to us like the absolute greatest job in the universe. In addition to his AMA gig, John is “Puzzle Guy” for A Way With Words, which he describes as “Car Talk for the English Language” and also hosts quiz night with Trivia NYC’s Tony Hightower every Saturday at 7:30pm at One Star in Chelsea.
When did you first become interested in wordplay, trivia, and the like?
I come from a games-playing family, so the interest has been there for as long as I can remember. At Christmas, I was always in charge of organizing party games. Everyone called me Mr. Game Show Host.
What was your first job in the puzzle industry?
In college, I submitted a puzzle to Games Magazine, that I intentionally made too large for the “Puzzles from Our Readers” column (I wanted to be in the magazine proper). For that first puzzle, I photocopied a dollar bill and cut it apart. The pieces were printed in the magazine with the goal of subscribers/readers putting it back together. Since the Games offices were in NYC, I made a point of stopping by often. I kept pestering them and hanging around long enough until one day they gave me something to do. Games had created, and was hosting, the first World Puzzle Championships, and because I had a driver’s license, I was asked to pick up guest teams from the airport. At that event I got to meet some of the movers and shakers in the puzzle world. Eventually I was invited to the very exclusive Tuesday night game testing sessions. I started writing puzzle and game reviews for the magazine, and by then I had earned solid nerd cred, and was able to develop further puzzles and trivia quizzes for Games Magazine.
Is there a corporate ladder in the world of puzzle gurus?
Yes, though it’s a very short one. You really just need to start contributing: send puzzles to the New York Times, TV Guide, Fireball, etc. You need to acquire puzzle guru street cred. I’ve created for apps, designed the Crossword Mug for Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild, and so on. These days, the best way might be to start your own trivia-centric podcast or host a quiz night. Just network. The most important things are to be visible and friendly.
What’s your typical work week like?
When I’m working a show, I’ll get the script (electronically) on Sunday or Monday of the previous week. Over the next few days, the AMA gang makes suggestions, researches answers, and such. On the day of the show’s recording, we do a table read and attend to the most important task of all: deciding what to order for dinner. Right before the show, we do a shot of bourbon together, and then… magic!
Other than friendly, what type of person makes a good puzzle guru?
A puzzle guru has to have a sense of showmanship. I have a drama degree from Tisch, so having a knack for performance has always helped. You also have to be fair to contestants, yet know when a decision will affect the show, either making it boring or more exciting. Sometimes decisions have to be made in favor of the show itself.
How did you get the gig at Ask Me Another?
In 2010 NPR wanted to develop a new game show and Will Shortz recommended me to them, along with game show writer Shawn Kennedy. Shawn and I actually wrote a treatment together using Google Docs, and I intentionally created the role of Puzzle Guru for myself. I was part of the host search process, and many aspects of the show since then.
What is your favorite part of puzzle guru-ing?
Working with Ophira (Eisenberg, AMA’s host) and Jonathan (Coulton, AMA’s In-house Musician) is a special treat. I am the biggest geek on NPR by far because I am the one thing Jonathan Coulton cannot be – a Jonathan Coulton fan. I also love out-of-town shows; people want my autograph, which is extremely flattering. I want to be just famous enough that people want to work with me. I’m pretty lucky; I get to live in a world where intelligence, wit, cleverness, and ability are appreciated.
What is the most difficult thing about puzzle guru-ing?
I wish there were more puzzles so I could contribute even more content to the show! I would love if there were a long puzzle that continued throughout the entirety of a show or a season.
How is it determined which puzzle guru will work a particular show?
If you helped acquire that show’s VIP, you’ll probably get to guru the show, or if you happen to know a lot about that VIP or have a good puzzle idea. Sometimes we just rotate.
Do you have a favorite past show or VIP?
I loved Justin Long; he was fantastic and so into the show. Also Ethan Hawke, because he’s totally down-to-earth and just a really fun guy. A lot of the VIPs are more timid than you’d think, because they don’t want to look foolish, but we’re not into doing that.
Who is your dream Ask Me Another VIP?
Neil Patrick Harris. He’s really into games, and I already have my NPH puzzle ready!
Can you complete a Saturday New York Times crossword?
Yes; slowly completing a NYT Saturday takes me about 30 minutes. My best time for a Monday puzzle is four minutes.
I have had a subscription to Games Magazine since I was 12. Do I have solid nerd cred?
Yes. You should join the National Puzzlers’ League with the rest of the puzzlegentsia!
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