The Genius of Spelling Bee

In the silence and darkness of Deb Koker’s Bedford, Mass., bedroom, the alarm rings and her eyes pop open. At 3 a.m., this would be an annoyance to most people, but Ms. Koker reaches for her cellphone and eagerly taps an icon on the screen.

This is an hour when most people on the East Coast are still asleep, but Ms. Koker, an engineer and a lawyer, does not have insomnia. The daily Spelling Bee game has just been published online and, while the rest of her family is slumbering peacefully, she can solve the beehive-shaped puzzle without interruption.

Spelling Bee — a puzzle in which players try to make words from a set of seven unique letters while using the center letter at least once — is the first of five digital games created by The New York Times Games team. The print version debuted in The New York Times Magazine in 2014, and the online game launched on May 9, 2018. And, while The Times does not share player information, the digital game has been a roaring success, both in terms of the number of subscribers who play the game and the passion that devotees show for it.

In less than an hour, on average, Ms. Koker has conquered the game and, sometime before 4 a.m., she logs on to Twitter to post her score. As is the case on most days, she has reached Queen Bee, an Easter egg level that is not part of the regular scoring of the game, which starts at Beginner and ends officially at Genius. Reaching Queen Bee meant that she had surpassed the Genius level and found all of the words on that day’s list.

Beeatrice, the game’s cartoon mascot, appears on Ms. Koker’s phone wearing a queenly crown.

Ms. Koker is clearly not a typical player. “Within a given week, about 25 percent of players will achieve Genius at least once,” said Luke Summerlin, a manager of data and analytics at The New York Times. “But this does not take into account whether or not they reached Genius every day, just once or somewhere in between.”

Those who do reach Genius — the number varies widely depending upon the difficulty of a given puzzle, but Mr. Summerlin estimated it at between 12 and 45 percent of all players — are greeted by Beeatrice donning a scholar’s mortarboard. They have cleared the Beginner, Good Start, Moving Up, Good, Solid, Nice, Great and Amazing levels to do so.

Credit…Deb Amlen/The New York Times

“I wake up early so I have time to get in my workout before I have to deal with reality,” Ms. Koker said. “Since I started trying to take Spelling Bee seriously, I starting waking up around 3 a.m. so I can do that first!”

Posting her score on Twitter is not a humblebrag on Ms. Koker’s part. It is a sort of call for word nerds to the “Hivemind,” as the community is known among followers of the Bee. They will chat with Ms. Koker on Twitter (using the hashtags #hivemind, #spellingbee and #nytsb) and help each other achieve the best score they can, even if they do not reach Queen Bee glory. As soon as they wake up, of course.

“The Spelling Bee followers on social media feel like my extended family,” Ms. Koker said. “These days, that’s more valuable than ever. It’s a lot of what gets me up at 3 a.m. every day. I’ve also learned a lot from them.”

Credit…Photo by Greg Koker

Similar groups gather on social media platforms such as Facebook and Reddit to discuss the Spelling Bee. Readers of The Times’s Wordplay column, where self-described “puzzleheads” gather to chat about and get help with the daily crossword, have taken it upon themselves to devote a section in the column’s comments to a discussion about the Bee.

And they all formed words happily ever after, right?

Well, mostly. The game is not only highly addictive and satisfying to the many people who play it, but it can also be humorously infuriating to the devoted.

By most accounts, the puzzle community is a generous and friendly one, until a word that is believed by some to be “commonly known” is left off the list of accepted words for a given Spelling Bee puzzle.

Spelling Bee was created as an alternative game for those who might not be interested in the New York Times Crossword. As such, it is edited by the associate puzzles editor Sam Ezersky with an eye for words that can be considered familiar to a majority of solvers, as opposed to some of the tougher vocabulary that solvers see in crossword puzzles.

“It has to be frustrating to discover something you know is a word — one you might even use regularly — only to see it nullified by the game,” Mr. Ezersky said. “It’s all a balance, though. There’s only one master list for everyone. And one person’s expansive vocabulary or specialized knowledge is another’s obscurity or esoterica. So the playing field must be kept level somehow, and my guiding question these days is, ‘What feels fair for our audience?’”

When the hivemind feels that a word should be considered commonly known but is not accepted by the online game, the social media universe lights up in mock outrage at Mr. Ezersky, who works on the game on his own.

Not everyone is aware of that. The Twitterverse also likes to tweet at the Wordplay account and, in the early days of the digital game, one particularly incensed solver drove home the point that the word RAFFIA should be accepted, by mailing a package of the palm fiber ribbon to the home of crossword editor Will Shortz, to Mr. Shortz’s complete bewilderment.

While The New York Times does not endorse such methods, RAFFIA is now an accepted word and subsequently, players were given a much easier way to vote for the inclusion of certain words. Those who are inclined to do so may write to buzzwords@nytimes.com.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, there was the print version of the game.

Spelling Bee began its flight to word game stardom as one of three puzzles that Mr. Shortz and The Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, agreed to add to the Sunday puzzle page. Mr. Shortz had seen a similar puzzle called Polygon in The Times of London, and he decided that a variant on it would help him broaden the scope of the games that the magazine offered its readers.

“I felt that The Times already had the ‘tough word puzzles’ audience covered with its crossword, Acrostic and cryptic,” Mr. Shortz said. “The readers we weren’t reaching yet were ones who’d like something easier and more accessible.”

He added, “So I planned three new things — Spelling Bee, a small word puzzle by Patrick Berry and a small grid-logic puzzle, usually by Wei-Hwa Huang — to fit on top of the harder variety word puzzles we were already running.”

Mr. Shortz modified the Times of London game by changing the shape to a seven-letter beehive and renaming it Spelling Bee. He also allowed players to reuse letters, which was forbidden in the British game.

The veteran puzzlemaker Frank Longo, who has worked as chief fact checker for the New York Times Crossword for the past 14 years, creates the magazine’s Spelling Bee from a computer program that generates lists of words containing seven unique letters, using the latest official tournament Scrabble word list as the source.

“When I submit the puzzle to Will, I always include two lists: One of words I would consider ‘common,’ and one of ‘questionably common’ words,” Mr. Longo said. “Then Will and his team go over each word on the ‘questionably common’ list (TACTILITY? BLINI? BLOTTO? REVIVER?) and decide if they believe it merits inclusion on the official published list.”

“And yes, sometimes naughty words show up,” he continued. “If they’re really bad ones, I will just not use the word. But very often, there are infelicitous words that are unavoidable because their letters are so common. For example, ENEMA and DILDO happen to come up a lot. In cases like that, we usually just shrug and leave them off the official answer list.”

By 2017, the New York Times Games team — then known as New York Times Crosswords — was looking for inspiration for a new project. The team had been given a mandate in late 2016 to create digital games that expanded beyond the Crossword, but there had been a lot of discussion and brainstorming about which type of game to tackle first.

Sam Von Ehren, the lead game maker on the team — yes, that’s his official title — knew that the group of developers and designers could come up with an original game, but that they also had legacy puzzle games they could digitize if needed. A multitude of solver requests for an online version of the Spelling Bee game — by then, it had become very popular in the magazine — made the decision easier. The relative simplicity of the game made it easy to code, and that sealed the decision.

“We prototyped and tested a few other games but Spelling Bee was in a league of its own,” Mr. Von Ehren said. “When it came time to start making full production versions of games, we knew we had to start with the Bee.”

In August, the team began production on the game. Nine months later, on May 9, 2018, Spelling Bee made its entrance into the world with its first set of letters: W A H O R T Y, with the W in the center of the hive. The pangram — a word that uses all of the letters in the puzzle at least once — was THROWAWAY.

Beeatrice was there to welcome players to the game. Robert Vinluan, a senior product designer who has worked on the Games team for four years, is responsible for her friendly face.

“I designed Beeatrice originally because I needed to fill some space,” he said. “When you start the game, players see an ‘Are you ready to start?’ screen like they do on the crossword, but it felt like it needed a visual. So I made a little bee that could be there to greet players and welcome them into the game.

“I also put her on the ‘Congrats!’ screen to make that moment feel more fun and congratulatory. Visually, I tried to incorporate a few letter B shapes in her design, not unlike how the FedEx logo has a ‘hidden’ arrow in it. Recently, some designers on our brand team helped redraw Beeatrice to keep her visually in-line with our other icons for our newer games.”

Credit…Photo by Flora Chan

These games include the Mini crossword, Letter-Boxed, Tiles and Vertex.

So is everyone as smart as Ms. Koker? Does everyone reach Genius and beyond?

It turns out that for some players, reaching Genius is not really the point.

That Zen attitude works well for Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the author of the novel “Fleishman Is in Trouble” and a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. She appreciates the fact that the game keeps her from feeling too competitive. “I look at the game as a way to relax,” Ms. Brodesser-Akner said. “I love reminders that you’re allowed to have fun without winning, right? And that is very good for someone like me, who has never been able to hold onto a hobby because I can’t stop myself from taking things to the next step. I love that there is no next step to this.”

“It makes me feel great!” said Reagan Fromm of Brooklyn, N.Y., who says she reaches the Amazing level most of the time. “It’s a tiny win to put in my pocket before I start the day.”

Peiling Tan of Singapore says that she reaches Great on most days, and she uses the game to learn new words. “I discover new words everyday thanks to the Spelling Bee,” Ms. Tan said. “It’s a lovely mental workout that I’ve started doing every day since the lockdown. In addition, my 5-year-old daughter enjoys playing alongside me and it helps her to learn new words too. We get to learn together. How lovely!”

Some players use puzzle solving as a way to take their minds off life’s stressors and to stay busy during the coronavirus pandemic. The novelist Laura Lippman, author of “My Life as a Villainess,” has since woven other pursuits into her self-care plan, but she enjoys Spelling Bee for its attempt to bring order to a mess of letters.

“I know it’s sacrilegious,” she said, “but I don’t particularly like Scrabble, because it’s not really about making words but making points. I like Spelling Bee because it’s just about making words. It’s about seeing things differently, creating new patterns with letters, finding meaning in seeming chaos.”

For others, like Brooks Swett of New York City, it’s about maintaining a sense of community when isolated. “Several months ago, my best friend put together a group text thread of people she had gotten hooked on the Bee during the coronavirus quarantine,” Ms. Swett said. “It has grown to a group of five players.”

“We reflect on words we missed from the day before,” she added. “We tell each other how we are getting on with the puzzle, offer encouragement, share words that we try in jest (why not YABADABADOO?) and air our grievances about glaring omissions of words that should be accepted, Sam.”

“Our group has big plans, once the pandemic subsides,” she said jokingly, “to eat lots of NAAN together, play the LOTTO and hang out with a TORO in a ROCOCO room.”

She continued: “We also cheer each other on without giving things away. The closest we ever get to giving each other clues is very occasionally to confirm whether a pangram is a compound word if a person is stumped or to reveal that there are multiple pangrams (we love those days). Often by 7:30 a.m., I already have four texts about the Bee. The thread has branched off into plenty of other topics as well.”

Ah yes, that pangram. There is at least one pangram in each game. Sometimes there are more. Entering the pangram in a game scores players a bonus of seven points, in addition to the points received for the length of the word.

Players get very excited when they find it.

Some of them write songs about finding it.

Discovering the pangram can be hit or miss. Some days, it pops right out at you. On other days, players find themselves endlessly typing in random letters or hitting the letter-shuffling button to gain a different perspective on the set.

The best way to discover the pangram, in this player’s opinion, is to join a community that shares hints. At some point, players will get stuck, and they are faced with a couple of options. They can put their devices down and walk away for a while — this almost always works, because it’s easier to see new words with fresh eyes — or they can join a solving community that will be happy to help pry the logjam loose.

Players have been known to create Slack channels at work around the Spelling Bee. Social media platforms are rife with such groups. And there is the particularly devoted one on Wordplay.

Doug Mennella, who lives in Tokyo, Japan, posts a grid every day in the column’s comments section based on a computer program he wrote. Others did it before him, and he has since picked up the mantle. No doubt that there will be others to carry on after he can no longer do it, because community requires continuity.

Readers are grateful for his work, and there is a lively discussion around each post, where players share hints to help one another break any mental logjams that might occur. And they celebrate players who post when they have solved the game for the first time on their own.

Credit…Deb Amlen/The New York Times

Of course, some players would like some help without letting others know that they need it. These people can rely on the increasing number of online solving programs that are popping up.

“I’ve always been a sucker for puzzles that challenge you to make new words from a small set of letters,” said William Shunn, a science fiction novelist from Manhattan. “Spelling Bee turbocharges that challenge by daring us to imagine we can hunt down and tame every last valid combination of seven unique letters.”

He continued: “Initially, I built the Solver just for myself. The original version was meant only to help me find the pangram once I became hopelessly stuck. The Spelling Bee discussion on Wordplay was crucial to the development of the program. I modeled my letter frequency grids after posts I had seen there, and I also adopted some of the jargon I picked up there.”

Credit…Nicole M. Hall

Christopher McLeester, of Clarksville, Md., built his program to share with others. “As a player of the Bee, I wanted to get more feedback about the words I missed and see some analysis,” he said. “And I wanted to do it while things were top of mind, not the next day. I assumed that others felt the same way.”

“I started thinking about what the page should look like,” he said. “I realized it could be a great way to teach my daughter, Evelyn, about coding, reading charts and how you can have fun doing cool stuff with a computer. And she already liked the Bee. When the online game started in 2018, Evelyn was learning about words and spelling. We started playing it as a family and it caught on as a daily tradition in the house.”

To recap, the Spelling Bee game — by most accounts — is fun to play, a way to challenge your brain while still relaxing, a diversion from stress, a way to learn new words and an opportunity to engage with a lively community of like-minded word lovers. A significant number of players have asked for an archive of the puzzles, so they can go back and play games that they missed or complete games that they were stuck on. That’s one sign of a game that has gotten under people’s skin.

It is also a chance, to some, to troll the game’s editor, Mr. Ezersky.

They do it well. There is a Twitter account called “Not a Spelling Bee Word” that posts words that have been left off the list (most of them are fairly esoteric) and humorously offers ones that might qualify for recognition in the game, if only they were real.

Then there are players with specialized knowledge in areas like physics, sailing or botany, who are bereft when a word they know — but a majority of other players are not likely to know — is not accepted. The word LUFF — the forward edge of a fore-and-aft sail, according to Merriam-Webster.com — comes up a lot among seafaring types. Physicists will gather on Twitter to loudly wonder in Mr. Ezersky’s direction as to why he does not consider PION to be a common word.

Sometimes it gets competitive. Never overlook the gardeners in favor of the techies, Mr. Ezersky. Gardeners work with sharp implements.

“I am often puzzled and frustrated,” said Colleen Bates Lance of Birmingham, Ala., in her response to a questionnaire posted on Wordplay — “that some simpler words, often having to do with flowers or plants — like vinca or Lantana — likely known to the large number of people who garden, are deemed unsuitable while technical terms that would seem to be familiar to a minuscule number of people are included.”

Mr. Ezersky sold his first crossword puzzle to The New York Times at age 17. He has since had more than 30 crosswords published in the newspaper, and hundreds more smaller puzzles of his have been published in the New York Times Crossword app.

Now 25 years old and a graduate of the University of Virginia, he works as an associate puzzles editor with Mr. Shortz on a variety of projects. This includes being the first pair of eyes to look at crossword submissions when they come in, as well as helping Mr. Shortz to edit puzzles that are accepted.

Credit…Melissa Bunni Elian for The New York Times

When Spelling Bee was being developed in 2017, Mr. Ezersky was chosen to become the curator of the word lists. He edits each one individually, and the first step is to make sure that the pangram or pangrams are not head scratchers. They should be words that are instantly familiar.

The next step is ruling out the obvious no-nos. This is where the human touch is needed, and he says that it is one of the most misunderstood parts of his job.

“There is a basic framework to the game, and that dictates how I edit,” Mr. Ezersky said. “I start with the following:

  • No proper nouns or capitalized terms, unless they have a reason for the lowercase context.

  • No vulgarity or vulgar slang.

  • No clear variants or British variants on American English words.

  • Nothing with hyphens or contractions, or anything that’s more regularly written as more than one word.

  • Nothing so informal that players might say, ‘That’s not really a word … ’

“We really do want solvers to find as many words in the complete list as possible,” he said. “If there’s a lot of esoterica in the list, what’s the point? Had the computer list for the puzzle (O) A D G N R U remained unedited, a part of the solution would have included words like OGDOAD, ONGAONGA, ORAD, ORGANON and OURANG.”

He continued: “Would you have been able to find them all? Computers alone can only do so much number-crunching to gauge a word’s familiarity.”

Mr. Ezersky is not without reference material. “I have a variety of online, up-to-date dictionaries at my disposal, including Merriam-Webster, New Oxford American and the Scrabble databases,” he said. “Another favorite resource of mine is Google’s News tab, which allows me to check if a word in question has made regular appearances in recent articles, especially in major outlets like The Times.”

“If there is anything I don’t recognize, I look it up to confirm that it isn’t just my own blind spot,” he continued. “But there are also what I call the ‘Scrabble words’ like PENK, TEIL and NIRL that I just know most players will not be familiar with and won’t try in the game. Anything that feels like a no-go — RAFFIA notwithstanding — is removed from the list.”

“Keeping all this in mind, I try to make a final call that feels as fair as possible,” he added. “I used to think that the phrase ‘commonly known’ was a good gauge, but I simply can’t dictate to all solvers what is and isn’t common. But isn’t that part of the fun of Spelling Bee, too? Who doesn’t love a game that gives them the chance to feel smart — smarter than its editor, even — as well as talk all about it with others?

“And when we learn more about each other, the world’s a better place,” he said.

Even so, players are hungry for more. Ms. Lippman ended her interview by saying: “I just want dirty words. Is that so much to ask?”

A final note to Mr. Ezersky and the Games team: Consider a “Spelling Bee After Dark” edition.

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