What's a six-letter word starting with "p" and ending with "le," with the clue, "Something Will Shortz has mastered"?
The obvious answer is puzzle; Shortz has been crossword editor for the New York Times since 1993 and is known nationwide for his puzzle-making prowess.
But as a group of Grandview Heights High School students discovered during Shortz's visit Nov. 15 to the school, there's another answer that fits the clue: paddle, as in table tennis.
Shortz visited the high school ahead of his appearance later that day in the high school auditorium. The afternoon included some friendly games of table tennis with students.
It was the 2,599th consecutive day that Shortz has played at least one game of table tennis. He is the owner and director of the Westchester Table Tennis Center in Pleasantville, New York.
Shortz's visit was presented by the Grandview Heights Public Library Foundation.
"When we were setting this up, one of the things Will Shortz asked for was that we arrange at least one game of table tennis for him," said library foundation president Analisa Trares. "We weren't sure how we could do that, but we were able to work something out with the school, with the added bonus that students could have a chance to interact with and play some games with him."
The pingpong tables were set up in the gym at Edison Intermediate/Larson Middle School; about a dozen students and science teacher Caleb Evans took turns playing a game with Shortz.
Most seemed to be no competition for the paddle master.
"He's really good," senior Chris Miller said. "You can tell he plays a lot."
Miller said he likes to play table tennis, often stopping by Evans' classroom, where the teacher sets up a makeshift pingpong table during free periods and lunchtime.
"I'm pretty good, but I'm not as good as him," Miller said, referring to Shortz. "It was fun to play him. He's a really nice guy."
Nov. 15 was a special day at the high school, with students spending much of the day participating in the district's second Hands of Gratitude project. Students at each school and community volunteers worked together to make 275 prosthetic hands that will be provided to children in Central America and India who have lost a limb or have a deformity due to birth conditions, accidents or land-mine explosions.
For the remainder of the day, high school teachers were invited to lead shorter "pop-up" classes on topics that reflect their areas of passion and interest beyond the subjects they teach daily.
Students could choose which of the one-day classes they wanted to attend, and the options included attending a presentation by Shortz or playing table tennis among themselves and with the puzzle editor.
Math teacher Emily Meister set aside her classroom for Shortz's presentation to students, which included him talking about his love of puzzles, the history of the crossword puzzle and the rules he uses when deciding which puzzles to select for publication in the Times.
Crossword puzzles as we know them today were a 20th-century American invention, Shortz said.
The first puzzle to include most of the traditional crossword features was published Dec. 21, 1913, in the New York World newspaper. Other newspapers soon began publishing puzzles, and the first book of puzzles was printed in 1924 by Simon & Schuster.
Shortz said he loved puzzles as a child and always imagined he would one day create them for a living. As a student at Indiana University, he designed his own major program to earn a degree in enigmatology in 1974.
Puzzle creators must follow a few basic rules, he said. For one, the pattern of black and white squares must be symmetrical..
"As humans, we like order and symmetry," Shortz said, which makes the traditional crossword grid appealing to people.
The Times publishes one crossword puzzle each day. In general, the puzzles get harder as the week progresses, he said.
Shortz said he writes about half of the clues in a typical puzzle, but he does not create any crossword puzzles for the Times.
He said he receives about 125 puzzle submissions each week.
Shortz is looking for puzzles that have fresh themes and avoid "crosswordese" -- words that fit well in a puzzle but are rarely used in everyday life, he said.
Each puzzle is completed by as many as 10 "test solvers" before they are published, "so there are rarely errors," he said.
After his presentation and answering questions from the students, Shortz led them through two games -- one in which he gave clues for words that end in the letters "llo" and another in which the students were asked true/false questions.
The latter game included a question on whether Hawaii is the only state that ends with the same letter repeated (false -- there's also Tennessee), and whether four is the only number that has the same number of letters as its actual value (true).
"We were really thrilled to be able to work with the school to give our students a chance to have a personal interaction with Will Shortz," Trares said. "It's really exciting to have someone of his stature take the time to visit with students."
Shortz offered some of the same puzzles to the crowd of several hundred people who attended the Friday evening presentation, dividing the audience into two teams dubbed "O-H" and "I-O."
The latter team won handily, boosted by the efforts of one contestant who told Shortz he had appeared on both "Jeopardy!" and National Public Radio's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" quiz show.
Shortz also recorded the Nov. 17 edition of his popular Sunday puzzle feature on NPR's "Weekend Edition" that Friday afternoon at the high school.
Senior Cameron Snyder couldn't hide his amazement when Shortz told the students during his presentation that he would record the segment at the school.
"It's really exciting. My mom and I listen to NPR every Sunday," Snyder said. "I can't believe he's taping it here in Grandview."
He said he is an avid fan of puzzles, both crossword and Sudoku, and of Shortz.
"For me, puzzles are a great way to relax, almost meditative, but at the same time you're not totally turning off your mind," Snyder said. "It's a lot better than just sitting around and vegging out by watching TV."
Snyder said he was surprised at the rules and restrictions Shortz sets for the Times puzzles.
"There's a lot more involved in the format then I expected," he said. "I couldn't believe how many puzzles get submitted a week.
"It's something I'd like to try sometime -- creating a puzzle and submitting it to the New York Times," Snyder said. "It would be a fun challenge."