The Puzzle Master

Will Shortz has been the crossword editor at New York Times for 30 years. He is the most celebrated puzzle maker in the world. When he was in middle school, he turned in an essay on becoming an adult where he said his goal was to become a “professional puzzle maker”. The teacher thought he hadn’t understood the assignment!

Astrologers are often asked to help with career choices. I can say with some certainty that “professional puzzle maker” is not one of the standard options we might match to the horoscope. And yet Will Shortz has made a profession of it, and a darn successful one at that. So, in hindsight, what is the astrology behind this choice of career?

I went looking for Shortz’s birth data. Astrodatabank doesn’t have him listed, so out of luck as far as time goes. But his birth date is published as August 26, 1952, in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Without a time of birth, we can’t cast a horoscope. So we fall back on the trusted ephemeris and make the most of it. Here’s the ephemeris for the second half of August, 1952:

There isn’t any one single factor that is going to magically pinpoint him as a professional puzzle maker. The best we can do is to see if we can gather multiple factors that can work together as a whole to support his choice of profession.

First, his Sun is in Virgo. This is a good start! More than any other sign, I would peg Virgo to obsess over details and be very fussy about form and function. Rules are a big thing with Virgo as well. A puzzle is a rigid form, and the grid is a complex interleaving of words that will share letters. Perfect ground for Virgo to play in. (If I could cast his horoscope, I would straightaway look at the condition of the 5th house of play, hobbies, and creativity.)

What about the Moon sign? In an early post I describe how you might infer the Moon sign from the ephemeris, without knowing the time of birth. On August 26, the Moon is at 02 Sco 30 at midnight UTC. Since Shortz was born in Indiana, we need to work with planetary positions for 5 hours behind UTC (assuming daylight saving was observed in 1952 in Indiana). So midnight of August 26 in Indiana would be 5am UTC, at which time the Moon would have advanced to about 5 degrees of Scorpio (at the rate of about 1 degree per 2 hours). At midnight of August 27 in Indiana, it would be a little shy of 18 Scorpio. So we know that Shortz’s Moon must be between 5 and 18 degrees of Scorpio. (If he were born at noon, the Moon would be at around 11 Scorpio.) I’m going to nominally set the Moon position to roughly the midpoint of 5-18, at 11 Scorpio.

I like the Scorpio Moon for a puzzle maker. Why? Because puzzles are like secrets, enigmas that have to be cracked with ingenuity and a good bit of doggedness, the kind of pursuit a Scorpio can really get into. Especially with the Moon, puzzling about things, getting to the nub of mysteries, unveiling secrets are all instinctive ways of being. Because these things come naturally, there isn’t any kind of conscious effort needed. (Of course, there is effort in planning a puzzle, thinking up a theme, arranging the grid and so forth, but that’s where the Virgo Sun comes in!) Also, the Moon jells neatly with how early on Shortz knew what we wanted to do. In middle school, we really don’t have a planned conscious sense of career. But Shortz knew, and that was because he felt it in his bones, through the Moon!

Next, Mercury. It is at 15 Leo 35. Leo is a playful sign, and this Leo placement of Mercury indicates playful thoughts, or a playful way of communicating, or communicating through play. It doesn’t draw a direct line to puzzles, of course, because puzzles are specifically about intricacy, which is not a Leo thing. But again, this is what we need to look at a combination of factors. With the Virgo Sun and Moon in Scorpio providing the basis for intricate work and solving a mystery, the Mercury in Leo directs them to puzzles and games, rather than to, say, police work. But there’s more to this Mercury which takes it to the next level.

Notice that on August 23, Mercury is stationary direct. A stationary planet is extra powerful in expression. On August 26, Mercury was already in direct motion, but it was moving very slowly, and was still very strong. When solving crosswords, the mind has to be nimble, it has to sort through numerous possibilities quickly and match them to the current state of the grid. It has to spot word play, tricky phrasing, possible red herrings, etc. Having a near-stationary Mercury is a huge benefit for this!

Wait, it gets even better. This already strong Mercury that is oriented to play is conjunct Pluto at 21 Leo 34, and square Jupiter at 20 Tau 37. This is a big double blast of nitro booster. Pluto lends its enormous power to Mercury. I have seen people with Mercury-Pluto conjunctions who never miss a trick, and remember every little thing that ever happened, no matter how far back in time. Every single facility of Mercury is amped up several fold by Pluto. As for Jupiter, its square to Mercury is particularly apt for writers. In this case, the writing is not prose or poetry but puzzles, but it is still word play, and to an extreme (Pluto) level, at that.

Venus is in Virgo. Venus signifies relationships and values. Not much to do with puzzles and mental games. The only connection to puzzles–and I might be reaching here–is that it values all things Virgo–neatness, structure, efficiency, discrimination, etc. To the extent that puzzles embody one or more of these Virgo qualities, this Venus is supportive.

Moving on to Mars, we find that it is in Scorpio. It is in the same sign as the Moon, but it is not conjunct the Moon. However, even by simply being in the sign of the Moon, this Mars lends its support and energy to the instinctive Moon function. (In a previous post, I have also suggested that the Moon-Mars connection signifies the “killer instinct”.)

So Mars in Scorpio is relentless, capable of directing energy in a single minded pursuit of goals. It is also extremely competitive, and is geared to overwhelm its opponent in any contest. But does it have anything to do with puzzles here? Well, actually yes, in that it is square to Mercury. Granted, the orb is a little too wide (over 13 degrees), but it will definitely make a difference because it is part of a T-square involving Mercury, Jupiter, and Pluto.

The T-square is a major storehouse of energy, what I call a dynamo. Many successful and powerful people in various walks of life have this configuration in their horoscope. The planets at opposing ends of the T-square funnel their energy through the planet(s) squaring them. Here the Mars-Jupiter combination finds an outlet through the Mercury-Pluto conjunction in Leo. Mars-Jupiter is entrepreneurial, and in his long stay at the New York Times, Shortz has driven and managed several periods of evolution to keep the puzzle relevant for current times. Moreover, this T-square occurs in fixed signs, which lends extra perseverance and tenacity (come what may) to his pursuit of mastery. No wonder he has been at it for 30 long years, and still going strong.


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