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The Legacy of Puzzle Master Merl Reagle and the Gamification of Messages


A master crossword puzzle maker, Merl Reagle died on August 22nd. (Image credit: Tampa Bay Times)

Merl Reagle had the soul of an editor and the style of a stand-up comedian. During his too short life he was both and much more: musician, songwriter, author and one of the greatest puzzle masters in the world. If you love crossword puzzles - not crossword puzzles - send Merl a prayer of thanks.

My friend Merl suddenly died last week at the age of 65. According to reports, the cause was an attack of acute pancreatitis. I am not writing this to mark his death, but to celebrate a remarkable life in English. 'You need two things to do what I do,' he once told me. 'You have to be passionate about words and curious about little things on a wide variety of topics.'

Merl created his first puzzle at the age of 6. In fifth grade, a childhood friend told me that Merl was the richest kid on the block. He asked puzzle questions, brought them to school and offered them to his classmates. If a child got the right answer, Merl gave them a quarter. If the child was wrong, it gave Merl a nickel. At the end of the day, Merl's bags rang with change.

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At the age of 16, he sold his first puzzle to the New York Times. Historically, the crossword as we know it today was created in 1913 by a man named Arthur Wynne. That makes the crossword 102 years old. Merl created and sold his own puzzles for 49 years, nearly half the life of the form, and gave joy, enlightenment, and the usual ailment, the head scratch, to half a century of word nerds.

(Arthur Wynne died in Clearwater, Florida, by the way. Almost exactly 70 years later, Merl died right over the bridge in Tampa. Given the influence of these two patron saints, someone should build a shrine and turn West Florida into the Canterbury of the crossword pilgrims.)

Merl had moved to Tampa with his wife Marie to take care of their mother. His house may have been in the sub-tropical humidity of Tampa Bay, but his heart was in the desert. I met him in 2008 in Tucson, Arizona, where Merl was a legend. He grew up there, made his name at the University of Arizona, improved his puzzle skills and grown to be one of America's greatest puzzle makers, a linguist in his own way, a joke and an accomplished performer.

He was one of the co-stars of Wordplay, a documentary about a national crossword puzzle competition. And in one of the real traits that he made it in America, he appeared as himself in an episode of The Simpsons in which he shows up to coach the clever Lisa who is obsessed with puzzles.

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The occasion for our meeting was the first Tucson Festival of Books in 2009, an event that has become one of the largest literary festivals in the country. People flocked to hear Merl perform. In his pockets, which were filled with tiny little things or word wisdom, he challenged the audience with questions. If you could find an answer, Marie would give your seat a candy kiss. The audience with the most candy would win a door prize.

I watched him - and he watched me - at the reading festival for the next seven years. We shared meals at the hotel, took the same plane back to Tampa once, and grabbed the occasional meal. Once he showed up at Maggiano's restaurant in Tampa, the surprising celebrity guest at my wife's birthday party.

My wife Karen loved Merl. He taught her tips on solving Sudoku puzzles - he was a master at it too. I once threatened to sue Merl for estrangement from affection. For years I'd been the one to ignore my spouse at the breakfast table and bury my head in the sports department. I got over it. But now it was Karen who ignored my requests, pencil in hand, and tamed the day's sudoku and crosswords.

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When I realized Merl's greatness, my only thought was to outsmart him just once. One day, Karen and I were stuck in a traffic jam behind a Toyota van. I stared at the model name on the tailgate. 'Ha!' I said, 'I have to send this to Merl.'

'Hey, Merl', I wrote, 'which name of the car model contains all five vowels?'

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'Sequoia', he wrote back immediately.


I will miss him. I told a friend today that I have never been in the presence of another person who made me feel alert, engaged, and entertained. On most of the occasions we met, he wore a uniform: a black jacket and dark shirt over his fat body. The only thing that made his look different from that of a mafia don was this favorite tie with a crossword puzzle pattern. Call him the father of the word.

There is a lot of talk in digital media these days about the "gamification" of news. I'm totally for it. But for those who view game strategy as an innovation, consider the work of Merl Reagle and his predecessors and descendants. You have created an experience that millions upon millions of users - readers! - held in their hands. Every day. Those who played were smart, curious, some of them addicted to the experience and in love with newspapers regardless of their attachment to the news. Innovate that!

I'm going online right now and I'm doing one of these crossword puzzles.