What does it take to create a crossword puzzle of sufficient challenge and cleverness to be published in the New York Times? A bona fide polymath, well-read and widely-experienced. A serious student of popular culture, equally versed in history, sport, art, science, architecture, medicine, warfare, European languages—a renaissance man.
Foster MBA alumnus Jeff Chen fits the bill. An entrepreneur, personal wealth manager, writer, rock climber and world traveler, Chen is also an avid puzzle-solver. A friend turned him on to the venerable New York Times daily crossword a couple of years ago. “It was love at first sight,” he says.
Last year he began composing his own. He’s already had four published in the Los Angeles Times and his first puzzle was recently accepted for the New York Times, a gold standard in the crossworld.
Chen says constructing crosswords is as much a test of strategy as vocabulary. He begins with a theme that ties together four or five long answers, and then builds around them. Devising appropriate, accurate, pithy clues is an art in and of itself.
Crossword puzzles are not a lucrative hobby. Each one takes Chen 15 to 20 hours to complete—before revisions. He has created 30-something puzzles and sold only five, each fetching between $85 and $200.
Entrepreneur, wealth manager, globe trotter, writer
It doesn’t threaten to supplant Chen’s day job. After earning his MBA from the University of Washington Foster School in 2002, Chen helped launch Acucela, developer of a novel treatment for degenerative eye disease. Since leaving Acucela last year, he has done private wealth management and is working on a new venture (currently undisclosed) with some friends. He has been an active board member with local non-profits Big Brothers & Big Sisters, Passages Northwest and Treehouse and recently traveled to Bolivia to examine microfinance operations for Global Partnerships.
Chen is also 90,000 words into his first novel, a story set at school in the mountains of Peru where kids learn how to be secret defenders of justice. “My brother and I were talking about how sad it was that there would never be another Harry Potter book,” he says. “So about two years ago I decided to write something that could start a similar kind of series. I’m not a published author, but I thought I’d give it a try.”
Chen still challenges himself daily with the puzzles of both newspapers (each escalates in difficulty from Monday forward), and says he can complete a New York Times Friday puzzle 75 percent of the time.