John Carroll CFO: crossword puzzle extraordinaire

April 14th, 2016


Fourteen letters to fill and the clue for 18 across is: JCU administrator with a hidden talent. The answer? Richard Mausser.


Mausser is the University Vice President of Finance, but before coming to John Carroll, he worked at a Fortune 500 company. He was in charge of Security Exchange Commission reporting. This type of reporting involved more of a narrative approach rather than dealing directly with numbers. The boss of the company thought Mausser could improve his writing skills. So for the first 15 minutes of every work day, he and his boss would work on The Plain Dealer crossword puzzle and see how far they could get. “It’s a stress reliever, it creates a balance between the numbers and words,” Mausser said.


After working on puzzles, Mausser was able to improve his vocabulary and understand the importance of verb tenses in clues. He had never thought of constructing a puzzle until years later on a whim when he had an idea for a puzzle theme. For Mausser, this is the most difficult part of the puzzle. “The key to a good crossword is the theme,” said Mausser.


Themes are the unifying idea among answers in the grid. They can come from anywhere for Mausser such as song titles, headlines, or finding answers to clues within one key word. To come up with themes, Mausser jokingly said, “The crossword gods descend.” A theme consists of at least three entries that connect to each other. These answers give way to other clue answers that branch off of the theme words in the center of the grid.


CAMPUS_Mausser Crossword

His first puzzle had a money-based theme and was published in The New York Times in 2013. The answers were a combination of the face and value of different U.S. currency, such as a one-dollar bill being George Washington plus one dollar, or WASHINGTONI.


When submitting a puzzle to the newspaper, a constructor must fit all of the answers in a 15 by 15 grid and there may be no more than 78 words, no more than 40 black squares, and the entire puzzle must be symmetrical. This means that if the puzzle was turned 180 degrees, it must look the same in every direction. Theme entries must be the same length to maintain this symmetry. When using black squares to end clues in the layout, they tend to break up the puzzle into nine sections that are manageable for the solver.


Constructors use a computer software to lay out the puzzles, and must do research of previously published puzzles to make sure their idea is fresh. “It’s competitive. Editors are picky and there is a lot of rejection,” Mausser said.


Clues for the puzzle must be written on a level that a solver can understand. Mausser said to fill in the spaces around the theme words, “You can’t use obscure words. You come up with words that are common, everyday use.” Mausser tries to look at words from a unique perspective and will use Google to find a word to try to make a clever clue.


“What are you going to say about that word to make it fun for the solver?” said Mausser. Editors change clues a lot based on the difficulty of the puzzle. Monday puzzles in the newspaper are the easiest and as the week progresses, the clues increase in difficulty.


Mausser has had puzzles published in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. When submitting, most publishers want electronic, text-based copies sent in, but others still prefer a printed copy as a submission. It can take anywhere from two months to a year to hear back about a submission. The person who submits will either be rejected, asked to re-write the puzzle, or have their puzzle accepted and published. It can take up to one year for the accepted puzzle to finally make it to print.


Those whose puzzles are accepted are paid nominally but Mausser believes that no one does it for the money. Though Mausser hasn’t submitted in a few years, he has several puzzles in the pipeline now.


Mausser said, “I know people who do the puzzles as a part of their daily lives. If you can bring joy to someone in that circumstance, that’s what I really get out of the puzzles.”


Editor’s Note: See  and fill in one of Mausser’s puzzles on page four.