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Wordplayer : Games: Professional puzzle maker believes crosswords should be solvable by anyone with a working knowledge of English and a ready wit.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His first name is a four-letter word meaning a European blackbird.

His last name is both an anagram of regale and sounds like a word that means royal .

As any crossword buff could tell you, his name is Merl Reagle. The 41-year-old Santa Monica resident is one of the world’s few full-time constructors of crossword puzzles.

Reagle is also a leader of the New Wave in crosswords, a movement that eschews words such as esne (a serf) and urva (an Asian mongoose) known only to people who would no more do their daily puzzle in pencil than spit on the street.

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Reagle and his fellow revisionists think puzzles should be solver-friendly, which means accessible to people who don’t know that adit means mine entrance or that an amah is a Chinese nurse.

In Reagle’s view, a good puzzle is challenging but solvable by anyone with a working knowledge of English and a ready wit. Reagle believes that the only way to save the crossword puzzle is to democratize it. “The more the crossword appeals only to a small brainy group, the less likely it is to survive into the next century,” he says.

How anti-obscurantist is Reagle, who writes the puzzle for the San Francisco Examiner’s Image magazine and contributes regularly to Games and Dell Crossword magazines?

So anti-obscurantist that he would rather be called a puzzle maker or creator than a “cruciverbalist.” “Cruciverbalist is the fancy word we all hate but the people who write articles about us love,” he explains.

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Reagle, who recently published a book of his best puzzles, tries to create crosswords that are clever, even tricky, but also funny. Indeed Reagle is your basic sit-down comic, a man who can dream up a puzzle called “Movies That Shouldn’t Be Shown Together” that includes the answer DRIVING MISS DAISY NUTS.

Reagle says his idea of a really good puzzle is one that prompts the person who is doing it in ink at the breakfast table to laugh out loud and say to the puzzle-less other, “Hey, listen to this.”

“I want the puzzle to have a life off the page,” Reagle says. “I want people to actually talk about it.”

To find out if a puzzle is funny, he sometimes runs prospective clues and answers past people who wouldn’t know an urva if one bit them on the foot. One of his favorite places for test marketing is the Golden Bull, a restaurant and bar in Santa Monica where the beer is cheap and cold and no cruciverbalists need apply.

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“If they think it’s funny, it’s plain old funny,” he says. “What most people are used to is crossword funny, which is an oxymoron.”

That kind of thinking has earned Reagle a reputation as a Young Turk, albeit in a field where it is a lot easier to earn a reputation as a visionary than in, say, performance art. As Reagle makes clear, crossword making is bound by more rules and strictures than many religions.

The orthodoxies were established decades ago at the New York Times, home of the crossword of record, by its first editor, Margaret Farrar. The shalt nots include: No words shorter than three letters, and no puzzles in which the pattern of black squares on the top doesn’t mirror the pattern of black squares on the bottom.

Reagle says he has been called the most avant-garde of the revisionist constructors, not because he breaks any of those proprieties, but because “I will actually put oreo in a puzzle and clue it ‘Cookie’ rather than ‘A prefix meaning mountain.’ ” His taboo-breaking use of brand names alone is enough to put him in the vanguard of a profession in which debate has been known to rage for years over whether words that are in use but not yet in the dictionary should be allowed. Reagle is unrepentant in his insistence that brand names are fair. “Why can’t I use Norelco if I don’t overdo it?” he asks.

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Such boldness is to be expected in a person who once designed a puzzle filled with the scrambled names of famous people that included the clue: “Biggest computer store in Manila?” The answer: IMELDA MACROS.

It is Reagle’s willingness to take verbal risks that attracted Lary Bloom.

“Merl is a genius,” says Bloom, editor of the Hartford Courant’s Northeast magazine, which replaced its crossword with Reagle’s this spring. “The puzzle we had certainly fit the space nicely and they sent it to us on time,” says Bloom. But he says he knew Reagle’s crossword was a better fit with the magazine’s “intellectually and emotionally challenging” tone because it made him laugh.

Reagle has been creating crosswords since he was 6 years old. At the time, he recalls, he was obsessed with Lincoln Logs. “Then when I found out what words were, I did the same things with them. I built little structures with them.” At first he made up primitive word puzzles, complete with simple, unorthodox diagrams, until, he says, his mother told him, “ ‘You’re doing moronic versions of the things in the paper.’ ‘Thanks, Mom,’ ” he said and began constructing real crosswords.

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At 15 he was the youngest person ever to sell a puzzle to the New York Times. He got $10 and the satisfaction of knowing the published puzzle was his. As a daily crossword, it was published without any constructor’s credit, only the name of the newspaper’s puzzle editor. That powerful niche is currently occupied by Eugene T. Maleska, whom many of the revisionists regard as the right answer to the clue “Conservative cruciverbalist czar?”

Today Reagle is one of the fewer than 500 puzzle makers, virtually all of them part-timers, who supply the nation’s 20 million solvers with their daily fix. The question he is most often asked is (in the variant that amused him the most): “What do you do first, the picture or the list of stuff?” As he and his small cohort know too well, the picture always comes first. “You can’t start with the clues and hope it will work out.”

Reagle says he needs a full day to come up with a workable theme and a core of theme-related answers and clues. Thus, he once dreamed up a puzzle called “Anagrammies” in which each answer was the name of a song with one of the words amusingly scrambled. Among the clues: “Anagrammy-winning baking song?” The answer: YOU OUGHT TO BE IN PIE CRUST. Another puzzle with the Reagle signature was called “But Cereally, Folks” and featured the clue: “New cereal for Southern California?” The answer: SMOG CHEX.

Once he has the puzzle’s essence nailed down, he spends three or four hours actually constructing, often working at Starbuck’s, the Santa Monica coffeehouse, or at a nearby Jack-in-the-Box.

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Puzzle making is no gold mine, although it pays the rent (controlled) on Reagle’s modest apartment. And his unusual profession made him almost famous recently when he received media coverage nationwide for incorporating a regular solver’s marriage proposal into one of his Sunday puzzles.

The fact is, puzzle making is second nature to Reagle, and he couldn’t quit if he wanted to. He even has a modest word puzzle incorporated into the message on his answering machine. After he apologizes for playing “phone tag” with the caller, he points out that PHONE TAG is an anagram for at least two eight-letter words.

Give up?

The answer follows:

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Heptagon or pathogen.


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