Evan Mahnken ’19 Has All the Answers

Mike Lovett

CLUE: New kid on the crossword block?

ANSWER: Cruciverbalist Evan Mahnken ’19, who made his New York Times crossword debut in October with a Wednesday puzzle.

The dictionary-themed puzzle Mahnken wrote served up clues like “Where ‘house party’ is in the dictionary?” The answer: “After hours.” (Or, after “hours” — get it?) Another clue: “Where ‘isolated’ is in the dictionary?” Answer: “By itself.”

The puzzle’s cleverness prompted giddy responses from Times crossword devotees.

“Woohoo, Evan!” gushed one fan online. “Splendid debut! The future of our hobby is in very good hands,” said another. Even Times editor Deb Amlen wrote this about Mahnken’s effort: “Hands up if you’ve ever solved a puzzle, sat back and thought, ‘Man, I wish I’d thought of that.’”

The laid-back Seattle native has not let the acclaim go to his head. Mahnken arrived at Brandeis three years ago, a crossword novice with a literary bent and a love of wordplay. At the time, The Justice was running a mediocre syndicated puzzle. Mahnken offered to create the weekly puzzle himself. “I underestimated how difficult it is to write a good crossword,” he says.

He’s been constructing crosswords for The Justice ever since, roughly 65 so far. “Now I’m pretty decent, but I don’t think I’ve got Will Shortz’s chops just yet,” he says, referring to the legendary New York Times puzzle editor who, along with two other cruciverbalists, worked with him on his Times puzzle. (For example, Shortz changed one clue from “‘Entourage’ character” to “‘Exodus’ hero.” Answer: “Ari.”)

Mahnken’s easygoing demeanor belies the disciplined approach that has propelled him into the crossword stratosphere at age 21. While other students run laps or eat a special diet to keep in shape, this double major in chemistry and American studies turns on the music and follows a brisk daily regimen of writing and solving crosswords — in pen. His trademarks as a puzzle writer are devising clever themes, designing attractive gridding and avoiding thorny corners.

On a great day, Mahnken can solve the New York Times Saturday puzzle — the most difficult, infuriating puzzle of the week — in a half-hour. “It’s not a matter of whether I can solve it but how fast,” he says.

If you want to be an adept solver, practice is key, he advises: “Do crossword puzzles all the time, but also go back and look at all the answers — try to commit them to memory, and internalize the reasoning behind the clues.”

So sharpen your pencil and start practicing with this puzzle, which Mahnken whipped up exclusively for Brandeis Magazine. (The completed grid is here.)

CLUE: Think Brandeis.

— Laura Gardner, P’12