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The Puzzle Man

by Tim Walsh

David L. Hoyt can’t read your mind exactly, but after 25 years of creating wildly popular brain-teasers, he has a good idea of how you think. No, he doesn’t have E-S-P, but he does have a serious case of the E-S-Ts.

David L. Hoyt is one of the boldEST people you’ll meet.

In 1993, David quit his job and sold his apartment to chase a dream – a pretty gutsy move for a guy making good money as a trader on the floor of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. “I had money, but not happiness,” he shared. “Ever since the 4th grade, I wanted to be an inventor.” A seed that had been germinating for 40 years broke ground when a fellow trader showed Hoyt a game from Meyer-Glass, a local toy and game design company. The trader had just invested in the company and was excited to share that the game had recently been sold to Hasbro, the international toy giant. Hoyt asked his colleague incredulously, “You mean you can make money inventing games!?” When the man said yes, David decided “right then and there” to take a big risk and reboot his life.

Of course the analytical brain that would one day entertain millions, had to have a plan. “I decided to give myself 4 years to make it work, and so for 12 hours a day, I just figured out how to be a game inventor,” he said. Although he sold a game to Parker Brother in 1993, his big breakthrough didn’t happen until 1997 when he licensed games to Hasbro, Mattel, Cadaco and Tiger Electronics – all in one year. “I gave myself 4 years to really make it, and it took exactly 4 years.”

David L. Hoyt is one of the greatEST game and puzzle makers ever.

Shortly after his breakthrough, Hoyt went into Tribune Media Services (TMS), the syndicators of the famous JUMBLE word puzzle, with a variant on JUMBLE he had created called JUMBLE Plus. In partnership with TMS, he ended up selling JUMBLE Plus to Cadaco, another Chicago-based game company. “I eventually created all kinds of JUMBLE branded games like TV JUMBLE, JUMBLE Crosswords, JUMBLE Brain Busters and all the while, I was creating other games and selling them to Hasbro and Mattel,” he said.

The hits just kept coming. Over the years he created or co-created Boggle BrainBuster, Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters, USA Today’s Word Roundup, USA Today’s Up & Down Words and many more brain-tickling creations. Then in 2011, Tribune Media Services asked Hoyt to replace puzzle-maker Mike Argirion as the writer of JUMBLE, making him the most syndicated puzzle maker in America. Hoyt and illustrator Jeff Knurek have been creating the popular daily JUMBLE puzzle ever since.

David L. Hoyt is one of the hardEST working creatives in the world.

David currently creates content for 10 different daily syndicated puzzles. “I will do one month’s worth of USA Today Word Round Up puzzles in a day or a month’s worth of puzzles for USA Today Up & Down Words. It takes a lot of time to do 10 puzzles a day, but because I start so early, I can usually get all my stuff done before most people even get to work,” he shared. Hoyt gets up every morning a 4am without ever setting an alarm. Why? He confessed, “I just love what I do. I cannot wait to wake up and do it.”

David L. Hoyt created one the the largEST floor games ever devised

In 2011, David partnered with Graeme Thomson and Steve Bullock to create the Word Winder board game, online game and mobile games. Then in 2013, he and his team went big and started making Giant Word Winder. In the game, players layout any number of 2-foot by 2-foot boards, each of which contain a grid of 16 letters. From there the word finding fun begins in GIANT fashion.

The game debuted at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair and was such an immediate hit with scores of kids that David started to do library programming all over the city of Chicago with the help of his wife, Claire. “It was really impactful to see the kids play the game and to see how much they got out of it,” she said. “They were building word, vocabulary and language skills, but they were also cooperating AND enjoying the library! It was great.”

The game is so large that kids need to use their whole body to play, creating another huge benefit. “When you play, you practice kinesthetic learning,” Claire says. “You tend to remember new words when your whole body is engaged, and that engagement is a helpful addition to the learning process.”

David L. Hoyt is one of the nicEST people you’ll ever meet.

Four years ago, a 6th grade teacher in Sleepy Hollow New York named Kirk Dietz (see My Classroom) wrote to David and explained he had been using the JUMBLE in his classroom for 15 years to teach puns. Hoyt was so excited to hear that a classroom was using his word games that he and Mr. Dietz began a collaboration through a class Mr. Dietz teaches called Learning Through Play. Hoyt regularly video conferences with Mr. Dietz’ classes and gives the kids encouragement and tips on puzzle creating.

David and Claire’s work with libraries across Chicago lead to the creation of The David L. Hoyt Education Foundation in 2015. The non-profit’s goal is to develop and promote play-based and collaborative learning. The foundation works with individual donors, corporations and other foundations to foster education, community, and responsible citizenship by placing Hoyt’s educational games in schools and libraries. The couple even took some of David’s games to schools in Hong Kong, Tanzania, and Egypt.

Although the fun have reached all over the world, David and Claire have decided to keep the foundation’s focus on their own neighborhood of Lincoln Square in Chicago for now. “Our goal is to make sure our immediate neighborhood knows about us and what we are trying to do,” says Claire. “We developed a program called Word Play Way, where we painted the Giant Word Winder board on the street. The Chicago Poetry Center got involved and we created a second Word Play Way board in North Lawndale, which is sort of a blighted area. Literacy is so important and access is sometimes an issue. This game is big and colorful and we hope it will attract a ton of kids.”

“Claire is doing and incredible job with the foundation,” David says. “She’s not just the Co-Founder, she’s the Executive Director. Right now we have programming in Chicago Public Schools. We just love teaching and working with kids. It really moves us."

David's connections reach far further than you might imagine. "I have a new app called Word Search World Traveler," David shared. "Because of it, I hear from people from all over the world. It's just amazing."

There’s another thing that success has provided David L. Hoyt. Perspective. “When I set out on my career I used to say that I wanted to be the best – the best puzzle maker, the best game inventor,” he shared. “Now I realize that when it comes to educational games and the foundation, I will never be the best. There are people that are way better at it then I will ever be. So now I say I need to ‘try my best’, not ‘be the best.’ I do that by teaming up with people who are better than I am and so that’s what we’re trying to do with the education foundation, team up with people who really know what they’re doing.”

Educators can find out more about the The David L. Hoyt Education Foundation HERE.

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