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Readers may be cross, but puzzle creator's aim is fun

"Cross words about the crossword" -- readers Karen Banse and Jonathan Mandel each wrote with a similar play on words. They are among the readers who have emailed recently to lament changes in The Times' Sunday crossword puzzle.

The complaints have a sad origin. Sylvia Bursztyn, who had been creating Sunday crosswords for The Times since 1980, died Dec. 30. Her last puzzle was published Jan. 9.

Reagle Since then, puzzles by Merl Reagle, which had alternated weeks with Bursztyn's, have run each Sunday.

Bursztyn had a loyal following. She joined Barry Tunick in April 1980 to help create the Sunday crossword and continued on her own after his death in 2007. Though Reagle has his own cadre of fans across the country, his style is quite different from hers.

In recent weeks, readers have complained that Reagle's puzzles are "way-out-of-the-box challenging," "stilted, relying on puns" and "an exercise in irritation."

"Change is a hard thing, and solving is a very personal thing," Reagle said by email.

Reagle’s Oscar-themed puzzle on Feb. 27 used numerals in two of the answers, which raised some hackles. "Stop using numbers in your puzzles," Carolyn Gordon wrote in an email that she asked be forwarded to Reagle. "It isn't cute, and it isn't clever. It's just cheating, plain and simple. If you want to SPELL out the numbers, as in 'five' and 'three,' that's allowed, but using the number depicted as a number isn't fair."

Reagle said the use of numbers -- or multiple letters, or easily drawn shapes -- in an answer square is common in crossword magazines as well as in the New York Times puzzle.

"I wouldn't want to do one every week -- far from it -- but I thought I'd at least do a few with numerals for starters," he said in his email. "Mind you, this is not a casual, willy-nilly thing; the numerals have to be parts of theme answers, not just something thrown in for variety's sake. In the case of my recent Oscar crossword it was necessary because the movies being punned on were '127 Hours' and 'Toy Story 3'  -- and spelling the numbers out would have looked pretty weird."

This type of puzzle, Reagle said, is called a rebus. "Often the idea is that more than one letter has to go into a single square, such as an E and a D (in a puzzle called, aptly, 'My Shrunken Ed Collection')," he said. "Or in a puzzle called 'Ring-a-Ding-Ding' you might have to draw a little bell in a single square. Thus, 'rebellion' would occupy six squares rather than nine -- the letters RE would go in the first two squares, then you'd have to draw a little bell in the next square, and then the letters ION would go in the next three squares. And it would work going down as well, with, say, 'Southern belle' crossing on the 'bell' square.

"Themes have gotten pretty adventurous in the last 30 or 40 years. I've always felt it strange that the Los Angeles area, which is known as the center of American pop culture and entertainment, has never been exposed to these kinds of puzzles in the Calendar section of the L.A. Times. (I've done it quite a bit in the magazine, but never in Calendar.) It always seemed like it should have been the other way around -- that L.A. would be the hotbed of innovative themes, and stuffy New Englanders would be the ones who pooh-poohed the ‘gimmicks.’ But even the crossword world has its share of ironies."

Reagle, 61, who had his first crossword published in the New York Times when he was 16, said he was a fan of Tunick and Bursztyn's puzzles. “I thought Barry's punny clues were excellent and Sylvia's themes very entertaining, and I solved every one of their puzzles when I lived in Santa Monica from 1980, when they started, through 1993, when I moved."

However, he pointed out a difference between their style of construction and his. "There was a sameness that eventually got to me -- not only in the themes but in the grids, since for their first 15 years or so they reused the same grids over and over again, something I could never do (and I've never heard of another Sunday constructor doing it)," he said. "For me, the theme answers always determine what the grid looks like.

"Right now, the New York Times crossword is the puzzle that everyone talks about, and I just think that the L.A. Times crossword should get in on that conversation -- and even be a bit more fun in the process."

--Deirdre Edgar

 Photo: Merl Reagle. Credit: American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

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Comments (12)

I printed out this puzzle and enjoyed solving it. Use of numbers doesn't detract, it adds to the pleasure of fitting the correct answers into the given spaces. I'm really surprised that anyone complained - but I guess there's always someone stuck in the past who won't welcome novelty.

I appreciated the puns in the theme answers once I solved the whole puzzle and could look at the Oscar-nominee list (without cheating). I had only heard of 3, no make that 4, of the best movie nominees. Pretty clever of Reagle to fit in all 10.

Keep 'em coming, Mr. Reagle !

Oh....stop WHINING!! Some think that the puzzles are too challenging. To avoid revealing myself as a total geek, I won't tell you about the games I play within the puzzle to make it challenging enough. Yes, sometimes I roll my eyes at the spelling variants and the "only-in-some- other-world" definitions, but IT'S ALL IN FUN!! I love puns and groaners and I think that the inclusion of the occasional number is imaginative.

Look, if you want the crossword experience to be better, then YOU have to get better.

BTW, if you want to see what a difficult puzzle looks like, check out the NY Times. Even after you solve certain clues, they don't make any sense....even with the assistance of Wikipedia, or any other resource.

Merl Reagle is a marvelous puzzlemaker. My mother has done the NYT Sunday crossword in ink for decades. When I first showed her Reagle's delightful puzzles four years ago, she immediately bought his books and chuckled her way through them all. Last year, she bought a new set and is doing them a second time.

People who don't understand him should lighten up, and trade in their LPs for iPods.

Reagle is a treasure.

The purpose of a crossword isn't to show how clever, obtus, how many inane puns he/she can create, or how irritating the creator can be. I'll stay with the NYTimes and Reagle can stick to his rebuses, number games or whatever he wants to call them. But they aren't crosswords.

I've always enjoyed Reagle's puzzles whenever and wherever I could find them, and I'm delighted to see them in the Times. To tell the truth, I did not find the former Sunday puzzles to be very challenging.

I read the blog about complaints, and tried the LATimes puzzle for the first time. I hope Mr. Reagle will not have to keep on explaining things in clues for long. His puzzles are fun, and if he is given his head and does not have to foretell everything, they will get even better and be more fun. Try the Wall Street Journal puzzles, or some in New York Times to see what it is all about.

I'm guessing the complainers are fairly young. If they think Merl Reagle's puzzles are "way out of the box" too difficult, and also NYT Sunday puzzles, they've never met a Eugene T. Maleska puzzle.

Disclaimer: I do like Mr. Reagle's puzzles, they're fun but not difficult.

Merl - I'm sorry, I love ya', I really do - but using the numbers is cheating. I do, however, RELISH your Sunday puzzles above all others. The little limerick from the Crossword Fiend site says it all:

There was a constructor named Reagle
As famous as Snoopy the beagle,
The words he would spin
You’d groan, but you’d grin
Then wish that his puns were illegal.

I solve, I groan, I grin, I persevere! Keep up the punnies!

Loyal Solver

Merle: "way-out-of-the-box challenging"?? I don't think so. He is a very smart guy who COULD be if he wanted to. But I think Merle is more interested in making people laugh than stumping them.

wow, what idiots would whine about clever wordplay, rebuses, humor, and unconventionality in their crosswords? thank goodness for merl reagle's crossword puzzles. he is one of the prime crossword puzzle constructors in the world (in my opinion, second only to elizabeth gorski), and i'm so happy the la times features his work.

Mr Reagle rocks!

Just do not use OATERS.

It IS not

a word anyone uses ANYWHERE except

in Meryl ReagleLand.

I just didn't understand Aug.13 puzzle, "refills". Even after checking the answers, I didn't get the clues. I can usually solve these, (with a puzzle dictionary, sometimes), this one totally lost me.

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