Santa Clara prof makes big screen debut

Math and computer science professor, Byron Walden, turned Sundance star.

Santa Clara prof makes big screen debut
“He’s one of the best,” says crossword puzzle guru Will Shortz of puzzle-maker and SCU professor Byron Walden (pictured), who has a killer puzzle on display in the film “Wordplay.” Photo: Charles Barry

When a documentary film crew showed up at the 2005 American Crossword Tournament, Byron Walden, a math and computer science professor at SCU, did not think much of it. If anything, he thought, the crew would make a DVD that would be on sale at the next year’s tournament. Well, it didn’t exactly turn out that way. The film the crew made was “Wordplay,” one of the most talked about documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and one that is expected to draw big audiences this summer.

Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, asked Walden to create the final challenge for the 2005 tournament. Little did Walden know that challenge would put him and his puzzle on the big screen. “The big climax in the film involves my puzzle,” Walden said.

Walden likens the film to “Spellbound,” which follows eight students on their quest to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee. In both films, the life stories of individual participants are told and their passion for crossword puzzles and the tournament are shared.

“Wordplay” has a celebrity element, as well, with Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, and the Indigo Girls trying their hands at crosswords. “Jon Stewart really knows his crosswords,” Walden said.

Walden has only a few lines and he makes just as many on-screen appearances; even so, he says, the experience of being a part of something so big and unexpected is enough of a thrill. “It is definitely fun to see your name in the credits and see the puzzle and say, ‘Hey, that’s my puzzle.’”

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