Goodbye, Merl.

[Picture courtesy of crosswordfiend.com.]

The puzzle world was stunned this weekend by the sudden passing of a true crossword legend: Merl Reagle.

Merl has been one of the biggest names in puzzles for a long time now, one of the few crossword constructors who was successful and prolific enough to work on puzzles full-time.

Between his appearance in the Wordplay documentary and a cameo on The Simpsons alongside New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, he proudly represented both the love of puzzles so many solvers share AND stood as a standard-bearer for crossword construction and quality puzzling.

Merl sold his first crossword to the New York Times at age 16 — ten years after he started constructing puzzles, amazingly enough! In a career spanning five decades, his contributions to the world of puzzles were myriad. Nearly every year, one of his puzzles appears at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The crossword he constructed for the 100th Anniversary of the Crossword was turned into a Google Doodle, and, based on my research, is the most solved crossword puzzle in history.

A craftsman with humor and heart (and no small amount of anagram skill), Merl was truly one of a kind.

[Picture courtesy of tucson.com.]

I had the privilege of meeting him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this year. It was only for a few minutes while the tournament participants were tackling one of the early puzzles and the vendor’s floor was pretty empty. (Otherwise, there were always puzzlers crowded around Merl’s table between tournament puzzles. He was the center of gravity around which many fellow puzzle fans orbited, a master of ceremonies wherever he went.)

He was friendly and gracious, one of those people who can strike an instant rapport with virtually anyone. He put me at ease immediately as I checked out his latest puzzly offerings and we briefly chatted about the tournament itself. (I didn’t get the chance to challenge his legendary anagramming talents, sadly.)

Fellow puzzler and friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough was kind enough to share one of this experiences with Merl:

Merl gave me his philosophy of puzzle construction at the ACPT one year. His goal, he said, was to make the solver smile. Coming up with a funny theme was the main thing. His test when he came up with an idea was to run it past his wife, who is not a puzzler. If it made her smile, it was a keeper.

He wasn’t out to frustrate the solver with obscurities or unnecessary crosswordese, so he used common entries as much as possible. His mantra was that the fill should not be overly difficult.

[Picture courtesy of cltampa.com.]

The dozens of tributes I’ve seen online are a testament to how many friends and admirers Merl earned over the years. There are too many to link to here, but I want to highlight a few from fellow puzzlers Brendan Emmett Quigley, Deb Amlen, and David Steinberg.

Merl, you will be missed. Thank you, for the laughs, for the tough crossings, the trickiest-of-tricky clues, and the many unexpected delights you managed to spring on so many solvers.

You can check out Merl’s work on his Sunday Crosswords website as well as some of his collections on Amazon. Click the links. You won’t regret it.

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