Will Shortz remembers the first national crossword puzzle tournament at Stamford’s Marriott Hotel on a March weekend in 1978.

“I underestimated how many officials we needed,” says Shortz, 64, New York Times crossword puzzle editor and all-around guru of American games. “We didn’t have computers then — we didn’t even bring an adding machine — and were literally up all night scoring the puzzles by hand.”

Times have changed and there is now computerized scoring, puzzle solving that can be followed online, and, for the final round at the upcoming 40th anniversary tournament March 24-26, there’s even play-by-play commentary by National Public Radio’s Ophira Eisenberg (host of Ask Me Another) and crossword master Greg Pliska.

In 1978, the $150 top prize was awarded by former New York Times crossword editor Margaret Farrar, whose career with the word games began in the 1920s. Now the top tournament winner receives $5,000.

But these puzzle folks haven’t changed much, though the range of people has broadened, Shortz says of the crowd of nearly 1,000 that turns out for the weekend — including about 600 official competitors.

In these divided-nation times, Shortz says he wants the puzzles to connect with all types of solvers.

“A puzzle that skewed too young or old is going to lose a part of its audience,” he says. “I would never present a topical puzzle on the subject of Broadway or about cars — especially in a tournament — because that would skew the results unfairly to someone who is particularly good in one field. That’s not to say we won’t have cultural references, but I try to have them varied so the challenges will be shared equally.”

The biggest change that crosswords have faced is the computer. “Crosswords are a little better suited to print than it is to the electronic media. There is still that tactile pleasure in moving a writing implement across a paper. It’s different — and not quite as good — as typing. You can also jump from one part of the grid to another more easily on paper. With that said, crosswords are going to come through all right in the new world.”

After all, the demand is bigger than ever and that can translate into revenue. He says there are 225,000 paid subscribers to The New York Times crossword puzzle, bringing in money so significant it was cited as a separate revenue stream in its fiscal reports. “I’m proud of that fact because it helps the journalism that the Times does,” says Shortz.

Would a young person starting out see the future of crossword puzzles the same way he did when he began?

“There are differences. Things that work well on paper don’t work in computers, and vice versa.”

But the future is weighed more in favor of the electronic media, he says. “Still, the principles of what makes good puzzles are the same.”

And their appeal is robust in the 21st century. “Crossword puzzles are ideally suited for the modern age where people have short attention spans. A daily crossword has 76 clues and answers and your mind jumps from one thing to the next. But now there’s an even faster-paced puzzle that’s 5-by-5 with 10 answers that has a huge following.”

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of The New York Times’ crossword, Shortz has matched celebrity crossword fans with puzzle constructors. Among those with a way with words will be actor Jesse Eisenberg, scientist and TV star Neil deGrasse Tyson, classical pianist Emanuel Ax, designer Isaac Mizrahi and actors Lisa Loeb, Olivia Wilde and Josh Radnor.

Shortz also answered some puzzling questions:

No, he can’t take a puzzle-free vacation. “You can’t turn it off. It’s part of your life. Like if you’re a writer, everything is about ideas.”

Yes, his favorite breakfast cereal is indeed Alpha-Bits (which was a recent answer of TV’s Jeopardy.)

No, a crossword puzzle doesn’t activate every part of the brain — but it’s close. (For the perfect exercise, according to a brain expert Shortz knows, it’s table tennis.)

And before we go, can Shortz give us a puzzle?

“What’s a two-word phrase in seven letters that has two Rs exactly in the middle?”

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ANSWER:

at worst (Get it? atwoRst)

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.