Meet Jonathan Knight: The guy who runs Wordle, Spelling Bee, and The Crossword

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If there was a five-letter Wordle solution to properly encapsulate my conversation with Jonathan Knight, head of games at The New York Times, it would be D-E-L-T-A. 

On Jan. 5, Delta announced its collaboration with the New York Times to provide all the Times puzzles — including Wordle, Spelling Bee, and The Crossword — to Delta SkyMiles Members with free Wi-Fi while you’re in the air.

“We just think it’s an awesome way for a whole new audience to be introduced to New York Times games,” Knight told Mashable at CES 2023. “And we hope, obviously, that they go on to have a deeper relationship with us after the flight.”

The games aren’t going to go directly on the back of a seat, like where you might find movies or other entertainment during a flight. Instead, you log into the Delta portal on your phone, use your Sky Miles account, or make a free one, and you’ll have access to the games.

In an interview with Mashable, Knight talked about the partnership with Delta, his starting words on Wordle, the competitive nature of the Mini Crossword, keeping the games safe for everyone, and more.

Mashable: Is Delta going to offer all the games from the Times or just Wordle and The Crossword?

It should be our full offering. Basically, you’re gonna go to nytimes.com/games. Because you’re logged in, through Sky Miles, you’ll have free access to all of our games. Currently, some of our games are free; some require subscriptions. We’re going to start with Spelling Bee and roll that out. But you’ll get full access to the full Spelling Bee instead of being gated on subscriptions. 

Are you familiar with how many people battle with the Mini Crossword? 

How many people battle with it? Like compare their leaderboard scores you mean? Yes. 

I play it with my partner every single morning and lately he’s been beating me. I was wondering if you could fix that.

I’ll see what I can do, I’ll see what I can do. 

The Minis are a really popular game and it’s our only game that has a leaderboard. We recently made a couple small updates in the app to better surface the leaderboard. So now when you finish the Mini, there’s a button right there that says go check it out. We’re going to be bringing more visibility to that feature. 

Do you compare your score with anyone?

I compare my score every morning to our executive producer Zoe Bell, who is very competitive, and comes from the games industry. And today we were literally tied, I think at one minute, 12 each. 

How about the Wordle? Do you always play?

I always do the Wordle. In fact, I broke my 48-day streak on New Year’s Eve, which was really annoying. So I’m starting all over with a new streak. I’ll usually do 30, 40, 50 days in a row and then I’ll miss for some reason. 

Have you sold any movie rights to Wordle?

We have not sold the movie rights to Wordle, but I will get right on that. 

Is Wordle dead?

We’re still really happy with the level of engagement on Wordle. A lot of people ask: Is it over? And of course, the audience came down a bit from its height. But we still have a very large audience that’s dedicated, plays the game every day, like you, sharing with their friends. We’re really pleased with how well the audience has held up, and really pleased with the acquisition overall because we’ve introduced this whole new audience to our other products.

What’s your starting word? 

I rotate through a small subset of words. I like [starting with the word] stare: S-T-A-R-E. I’ll sometimes do variations on that like spare or scare if I’m feeling particularly adventurous. 

Does an editor actively choose the word every day? 

That’s a bit of a complicated answer there. When we acquired the game from Josh Wardle, a programmer based out of New York who made the game, … he had to come up with a bunch of words and he basically programmed in about three or four years worth of solutions. How he picked those words, we haven’t really talked about publicly, but it wasn’t random, it wasn’t a computer. He had a methodology, he wanted them to be common words that we would all know, and he baked those in. 

[The New York Times] is largely still using Josh’s original word set. It’s not like we went crazy and changed everything. We want the game to be true to its original success. But [the Wordle editor will]l go in there and fine-tune. We had a little bit of fun at Thanksgiving with the word feast, which generated a lot of conversation. So that was kind of our first editorial hand on the game. And we also watch out for anything that might be offensive. We want the game to be fun for everybody and not do any harm or hurt anybody’s feelings. So that’s a big part of what [the Wordle editor] does.

Speaking of doing no harm, there was recent controversy with the crossword puzzle [in the shape of a swastika]. How do you deal with sort of the backlash to that?

Obviously, our games are intended to bring joy to people, be it diversion from the news, be it diversion from any kind of controversy. And the goal is for people to have a good time. The rules of crossword grid layout is that they have radial symmetry, both vertical and horizontal symmetry. It’s required in the grid. That’s been how New York Times crossword puzzles are built since 1942 when Margaret Farrar was the first editor and she set down that rule. So any resemblance to any kind of, you know, it’s obviously not intentional. It was unfortunate that it was perceived that way.

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