PHILADELPHIA - Joel Fagliano was sitting in sophomore chemistry class at Masterman High School one morning when his attention wandered from the blackboard to the blank piece of paper in front of him.
He wrote down five letters:
Under that he wrote down another five:
To be truthful, he doesn't remember exactly what word came next, but sitting at his Mount Airy kitchen table the other day, he demonstrated his best guess:
By writing D-E-G-A-S at the bottom, he made eight words out of three, a neat little crossword.
This was the modest beginning of the budding career of a teenage enigmatologist.
By the end of that fall, in 2007, he was cocky enough to send one of his creations to Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times. An assistant wrote back, politely passing.
But Fagliano (pronounced FAH-lee-anno) kept at it, turning out about 10 or so more crosswords over the next two years, until he heard from Shortz himself last September. He had a sale.
A month later the boy's puzzle ran - on a Thursday, no less. Monday's puzzles are easiest, Saturday's the hardest. But Thursday's are not the sort of thing people do in pen. Unless you're Fagliano. "It's not overconfidence," he says, twisting a lock of his dark hair. "I just don't like using pencils."
He kept the news of his success to himself the morning his puzzle ran. In math class he was called to the office, and there he learned his mother had e-mailed about everyone she could think of, including his principal.
Fagliano walked into his classroom to find his puzzle showing on the smart board. "Everyone was like, 'Wow, that's awesome.' "
Since that morning Fagliano has had three more puzzles accepted by the Times - and two bought by the Los Angeles Times syndicate.
All before his 18th birthday.
"That's an extraordinary achievement," says Shortz, who has edited the Times crosswords since 1993.
A lot of crossword puzzles favor words that are more often seen than heard. Words like erne, stoa, inil, and anoa.
"You can read widely for years and never run across these words," Shortz notes.
In comparison, he says, Fagliano puzzles people with clever clues and familiar language.
The middle son of an epidemiologist and a grant writer, Fagliano uses a $49 computer program called Crossword Compiler to write his puzzles in the family den.
First he thinks of a theme, then works on the architecture of the puzzle. Writing the clues is the easiest part, he says. "I use Google."
His most recent puzzle created a stir in the crossword world.
The clue: "Curly, ethnic hairstyle, colloquially."
The answer: "Jewfro."
On a blog called Diary of a Crossword Fiend, a few commenters found the word offensive, though most did not. Fagliano himself weighed in, explaining that as a Jew he uses the word all the time. Shortz says he thought twice about the word, asked a few people for reactions, then printed it.
"It's fun, it's modern," he said. "There were a few older people who didn't know the term and were offended by it. It's just a portmanteau of Jewish Afro - it's never used or intended disparagingly. A perfectly fine term."
That's the sort of fizz that Fagliano is trying to inject into the warm milk of the medium. One puzzle he's writing works in some of his favorite things: the band Radiohead, chess (he was once ranked 70th in the country for his age), and Shark Week (it was on TV while he was writing clues).
Last weekend, Fagliano took his skills to Pomona College in California. He's got a cool theme for a Sunday puzzle in mind - one that involves adding a letter to change a word's meaning, like primordial booze.
The Times pays $1,000 for Sunday puzzles, Fagliano says. That buys a lot of pizza.
Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917