Editor's Note

Master puzzlemeister Mr. Merl Reagle
Master puzzlemeister Mr. Merl Reagle (Burk Uzzle)
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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, April 6, 2008

THERE ARE MANY MEASURES OF CELEBRITY in 21st-century America, but the one that really impresses me is this: Has a popeyed, Play-Doh-yellow version of yourself been invited to appear as a guest star on "The Simpsons"?

Merl Reagle passes that test. His Simpson-ized persona and his own voice will be in an upcoming episode.

"Lisa is a big crossword nut, and enters a crossword competition in Springfield," Reagle says. This becomes the hottest betting action in town, and, of course, "Homer bets against her."

Reagle's role, as it is in real life, is puzzle constructor, a role you will see him in if you ever watch the 2006 documentary "Wordplay." The wonderfully revealing exploration of the puzzling world follows the construction of one of Reagle's puzzles -- from the first pencil scratches to Bill Clinton solving it.

Reagle, 58, has been a star in the world of crossword puzzle enthusiasts since 1985, when he began constructing a puzzle for the San Francisco Examiner. Google him, and you'll quickly see how revered he is: Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times, says, "Taken as a whole, his themes are consistently fresher and funnier than anyone else's." Games magazine has named him "the best Sunday crossword creator in America." He is widely credited with revitalizing the form, and adding new layers of humor and wordplay to the traditional intellectual challenge.

You don't have to talk to Reagle long before you see that the playful wit that fills his puzzles comes naturally. In an article he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, he described his mission this way: "In the 1980s a new group of puzzlemakers saw that crosswords were starting to remind them of their worst teachers from grade school. Wouldn't it be more fun and attract more solvers if puzzles were a little more playful? Just a smidge trickier and a lot wittier? Of course, what's witty to some may be nitwitty to others, but at least there would be the psychic mini-reward of a light bulb going off when you got the answer {lcub}hellip{rcub} The first things that had to change were the themes {lcub}hellip{rcub} An old-style crossword theme might be 'great American writers' or 'phrases containing the word "blue." ' A New School theme would be more like 'movies that shouldn't be shown together,' like DRIVING MISS DAISY/NUTS."

Beginning today, on Page 34, Reagle's combination of smart and smart-alecky will grace the Magazine. We hope you enjoy it.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.

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