Writer / Kara Kavensky
Photographer / Amy Unger
Jeff Knurek and David L. Hoyt share a unique partnership. Over the past eight years, Jeff took over illustrating the Jumble puzzle and was joined by David in 2011, becoming the most syndicated puzzle team on the planet. With a distribution through more than 600 newspapers via the Tribune syndicate, they reach more than 70 million people each day.
The popularity of the Jumble puzzle has led to several books and games celebrating their syndicated puzzles. Jeff and David headlined an event honoring the history of the Jumble to a sold-out crowd at Tribune Tower last year in Chicago.
When Jeff began cartooning for the Jumble, he became the most syndicated puzzle creator on the planet. “Anyone is fair game of being featured in the cartoon,” shares Jeff who finds inspiration everywhere. “My daughter and son are swimmers (at HSE), and I have featured their coach, the team, people at my gym…”
One such featured caricature was of yoga and spin instructor Greta Wilson whose inspired image graced the cover of one of Jeff and David’s books.
“Jeff and Kathy attended my cycle class, and we subsequently became great friends,” shares Greta. “It was a fun surprise that my likeness inspired a Jumble cartoon. My husband and I remain close friends with Jeff and Kathy. They are just great people.”
Originally, Jeff’s agent introduced the duo. The agent suggested that Jeff connect with David regarding a game idea of Jeff’s. A poker fan, Jeff had designed a new take on the game, Hi/Lo. David interrupted and said, “I know what you are going to show me. Come here.” David led Jeff to his computer where he showed him something he was working on which was basically the exact same idea Jeff had. “Clearly we are like-minded in our thought processes,” says Jeff.
David asked Jeff if he could draw cartoons. David, who is known as “The Man Who Puzzles America,” tested him on the spot, having Jeff sketch something on a napkin. David loved the impromptu illustration, even though to Jeff, it was a poor rendering. “That drawing was awful,” confesses Jeff, but David thought it was great. “I was offered $10 per sketch. I created over 3,000 sketches for Dave,” shares Jeff.
Those 3,000 sketches accompanied David’s Jumble puzzles in a bar top gaming system. Not long after this joint venture, they began their syndication with Tribune with Boggle BrainBusters.
While the Jumble puzzle became their bread and butter, David and Jeff keep busy creating and designing additional games, both together and independently. Both are award-winning game designers. Each has created board games, electronic games and apps.
The two also manage licensing for Comedy Magician Mac King who has a popular show in Vegas. Jeff and David help market and license for Mac’s Magic in a Minute magic kits and other merchandise.
A lesser-known fact about Jeff is that while he worked at his first job as a toy inventor in Chicago years ago, he created the game, Spikeball.
Spikeball, which has become a sport, was featured on Shark Tank last year. “It was wild watching my invention on Shark Tank,” says Jeff. “The guys (who now own the trademark) were asked if they had invented it, and to their credit, they told the truth and said, ‘No, they bought the trademark when it expired.’ And now I can’t go to a beach or park without seeing my invention.”
Jeff confesses that once he got over his frustration at this experience, he explained that Spikeball originally went to market for three years and was subsequently removed from the shelves due to poor response. Who could have foreseen what the future held? Jeff adds, “I am really proud of what those guys have done with it.”
“As we did a college visit with my daughter recently to IU, I noticed a flier posted in the natatorium for a Spikeball club,” says Jeff. “It’s everywhere.”
Jeff lives in Fishers, and many parents may recognize Jeff’s efforts with past Spring Fling game themes at Fall Creek Elementary. “We went all out with the games,” says Jeff, whose kids are now at HSE HS. The latest fundraising effort that Jeff is involved with capitalizes on the Jumble and places him, along with David, in their element with “Jumble Live,” a fundraiser benefitting Indy Reads Adult Literacy programming October 18 downtown at the Hyatt Regency.
“This is an event for wordy people,” states Jeff with a smile. These are his, and David’s, tribe.
For Jumble Live, teams of eight wear the same letters as other teams and must be the first team to complete the puzzles presented by the host. The event is capped at 160 participants with many more attending for the entertainment value. “We are splitting the event to be half ‘Giant Word Winder’ and half ‘Jumble Live,’” shares Jeff. “This allows everyone to have fun.”
“We are so excited to be presenting Jumble Live this fall,” said Indy Reads outgoing Executive Director Travis DiNicola. “Jeff and David have been great supporters of Indy Reads for years, donating artwork and their books to our auctions, appearing at our Indy Reads Books bookstore and contributing to our book, ‘Indy Writes Books.’ Working with them in moving the Jumble off the page to the stage has been so much fun. It is going to be one of the most unusual fundraising events ever!”
David, who is by far the most syndicated puzzle creator in the world right now, spent much of his summer in Chicago libraries, playing Giant Word Winder with kids in summer camps. On October 18, he gets to apply the fun to adults.