I came across Wellesley High School chemistry teacher Tap van Geel’s crossword puzzle claim to fame while researching a post for our Natick Report on why “Natick is infamous in crossword puzzle circles” (van Geel and his family live in Natick). Wellesley High students have come to learn of his crossword puzzle expertise during Seminar Day sessions the past two years.
Van Geel earned the honor of having a crossword puzzle of his design published in the New York Times about two years ago (it also wound up in an American Airlines in-flight magazine, apparently through an agreement with the newspaper). He’s also had two puzzles published in the Wall Street Journal.
A review of van Geel’s New York Times puzzle gushed: “Audacious gridwork for a debut and a lot of it is snazzy.”
A van Geel bio I came across on the Wellesley High website mentions cooking, martial arts, and drums as outside interests, but no reference to crosswords. “That bio is 15 years old now. I think I got interested in constructing about 10 years ago.”
The WHS teacher, whose grandmother introduced him to crossword solving, fills in the New York Times puzzle daily. He describes himself as “a good solver,” but not in the same class as those who compete in solving competitions. “They can do a 15×15 puzzle in something like two minutes. My fastest (on a Monday, the easiest day) is a little under five,” he says.
I might have guessed van Geel was a language or lit teacher when I first discovered his crossword achievements, so asked him what advantage if any he thinks being a science teacher might give him in solving or constructing crosswords.
“That’s a good question! I don’t think there’s any advantage to teaching science. Maybe English teachers are sick of words by the end of the day?”
Van Geel says it takes a long time to build a puzzle, maybe 4-5 hours if he’s really lucky. “But I have others in the works that are probably at 25 hours and counting. You get stuck and frustrated and need to put it down for a few days (or months),” says van Geel, who thanks his family for being tolerant of him at those times.
Most puzzles have a theme, and that’s his starting point. “Coming up with a theme that’s worth the investment of time is tough. It’s hard to come up with themes that haven’t been done before. And then filling in the grid is often what takes the most time,” van Geel says.
Like most constructors, he uses software. “But it can still take hours of tweaking to find a set of entries that make for an interesting solving experience,” he says.