'Post' Brings Crossword Master on Board

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Puzzle constructor Merl Reagle begins his weekly stint as The Washington Post's crossword master on Sunday. "There's a fine line between entertainment and torture," Reagle once wrote. "I ought to know. I make crossword puzzles for a living."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

At the kitchen table, in front of the TV, in bed with a bagel - for many millions, the Sunday crossword puzzle is a ritual. And starting this Sunday, many solvers have a new option. The Washington Post syndicate will start to carry Sunday puzzles by Merl Reagle. Listeners to NPR's WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY knows - know him as our old pal Merl Reagle. You may know him as one of the stars of the documentary film "Wordplay." And those who've tried to solve his puzzles know him as that, blankety blank asterisk dollar sign who tortures them with painful puns and brain benders.

Merl Reagle joins us in just a moment. You're welcome to join the conversation. If you have questions about crosswords and how they're constructed - but you're going to have to also be willing to play a puzzle with us live on the air - our phone number is 800-989-8255, e-mail talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation underway on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Merl Reagle joins us now from the studio at member station WUSF in Tampa, Florida. And congratulations, Merl.

Mr. MERL REAGLE (Puzzle Constructor, Washington Post): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And first of all, let's explain that - the puzzle you created for us today.

Mr. REAGLE: Well, it's a TALK OF THE NATION puzzle. The idea is, well, in this day and age of "Fast Food Nation" and "Kid Nation," I thought I might mention some of the lesser-known nations.

CONAN: Give us an example.

Mr. REAGLE: Consider common words ending with nation and which the front part of the word is being punned on. For example, what do you call a nation obsessed with Oscar-winning actress Thompson, you'd say Emmanation(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You would say Emmanation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: I would say Emmanation. Now, sometimes, they're based purely on sounds. So that's the idea.

CONAN: I see. So if you'd like to participate in our on-air puzzle with Merl Reagle, give us a call: 800-9898255. Or if you got a suggestion for a blank nation, you can send it by e-mail: talk@npr.org. Maybe you can stop Merl Reagle by that method. But anyway, that while we're waiting…

Mr. REAGLE: Great.

CONAN: …for people to call in - good, yes, you don't like it on the other side, do you?

Explain - how big a deal is this for the Washington Post syndicate to be picking up your Sunday puzzle? And by way of explaining that, tell us little bit about the crossword puzzle business, if you would.

Mr. REAGLE: Well, the Washington Post actually asked me to join their little organization five years ago, but it was just probably not the right timing. The thing about that Washington Post is that their Sunday magazine has a pretty great sense of humor. And as you know, I'm - I kind of lean toward puzzles that like a kind of a bent sense of humor. So this was really like a match made in heaven when it actually happened again.

And the crossword puzzle biz, you know, based on syndicates and things like that - I'm the only self-syndicated Sunday puzzle in the country. So, when you syndicate a puzzle, actually it's little cheaper. And all newspapers are feeling the pinch a little bit. So not only was it a perfect match economically, it probably was a good deal too.

CONAN: How much money do you make from a puzzle?

Mr. REAGLE: Well, it varies. I'm not supposed to talk about that on the air.

CONAN: Why not?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: Because it varies, because it's usually based on circulation. So there's a lot of little newspapers that can't pay that much so you can't charge them that much. As opposed to the L.A. Times or the San Francisco Chronicle, where, you know, you have like a nine-county exclusive and they pay much more so that you're not in the neighboring papers.

CONAN: Does this mean the deal with the Washington Post syndicate mean you won't be contributing puzzles to the New York Times anymore?

Mr. REAGLE: No, because, no, that's - it's fine to do that because it's not in the exact purview of the Washington Post. It's - how far away is Washington D.C. from New York? Like, 200 miles or so?

CONAN: Something like that.

Mr. REAGLE: I'm showing my ignorance here. But as long as you're not in the same neighborhood, it's perfectly fine because most people in New York pick up The New York Times, most people on Washington, D.C. pick up the Washington Post.

CONAN: Or the Washington Edition of the New York - anyway,

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: You said it. I didn't.

CONAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: As you go along with this - anyway, we got some people calling in who want to play the game…

Mr. REAGLE: Oh-oh.

CONAN: …800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

This is Steve(ph), and Steve with us from Visalia in California.

STEVE (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

Mr. REAGLE: Hi.

STEVE: Hi.

CONAN: Okay, you got to present him with a puzzle teaser here, Merl.

Mr. REAGLE: Oh, I'm supposed to give him one?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. REAGLE: Okay, all right. What do you call a nation that's obsessed with building large structures to hold back rivers?

STEVE: Damnation.

CONAN: Very good.

That was pretty easy, Merl.

Mr. REAGLE: All right. You want me to give him another one?

CONAN: Give him a harder one.

Mr. REAGLE: Okay, a harder one. What do you call a nation that's obsessed with attaching things to other things like seat belts?

STEVE: Attaching things to other things…

Mr. REAGLE: Like seat belts.

STEVE: …like seat belts. Hmm…

CONAN: Clicknation.

(Soundbite of buzzing)

STEVE: Say it again?

CONAN: I was just - I was going for clicknation. I don't think that's right though.

Mr. REAGLE: I've never heard the word clicknation.

CONAN: No, me neither. But…

Mr. REAGLE: It's…

CONAN: …hey, it's answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: It's fastennation.

STEVE: Fastennation.

Mr. REAGLE: Fastennation. It was - you can even sing it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And now you know why I have such a good time every year at the Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament when Merl Reagle and I do play-by-play on the Crossword Puzzle Tournament Finals.

Mr. REAGLE: Right.

CONAN: It's gems like that keep the show alive.

Mr. REAGLE: But you are Al Michaels and I'm John Madden on that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. Visalia, Steve(ph), thanks very much.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye, bye.

Let's go now to Jill(ph). And Jill's calling us from Grubville(ph) in Missouri.

JILL (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JILL: Oh, yes, I was curious about the fact that I have never found a mistake in a crossword puzzle. There's times when I'm so stumped that I think it must be wrong.

Mr. REAGLE: We love you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JILL: Who does the proofreading? It's perfect.

Mr. REAGLE: Well, I do mine, but I mean — and I've made plenty of mistakes. But very often I make the kind of mistakes that your average solver can't catch. I did made one gigantic mistake once about where Flatbush was and Flatbush Avenue, and I got a torrent of mail about that. But generally, if I make a mistake, it's the kind that maybe three people will know about, and that's my favorite kind of mistake.

JILL: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Hmm. Flatbush is just outside the presidential barbershop, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JILL: Ah…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Do you want to play the game?

JILL: Yes, I'd love to.

CONAN: All right. Give her a…

Mr. REAGLE: All right. Here's one for you.

JILL: Okay.

Mr. REAGLE: What do you call a nation that's obsessed with parties that only men can attend?

JILL: Stagnation.

Mr. REAGLE: Very good.

CONAN: Very good. That was very quick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JILL: Thank you. I love puzzles and crosswords.

CONAN: And I think you will not have to wait long before Grubville appears in a puzzle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JILL: There you go. It's a plug.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

JILL: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's see if we can go now to Spencer(ph), Spencer with us from Paw Paw in Michigan. Another town whose name may soon appear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: Geez.

CONAN: Go ahead, Spencer.

SPENCER (Caller): Hi. Hello?

CONAN: Yeah, you're on the air. Go ahead please.

SPENCER: Hi. I had a question about the role that computer software plays in creating — in crossword puzzles. And I was wondering if your guest could elaborate on that.

Mr. REAGLE: Well, it's a real big role nowadays. In the old days when I started out, it was pretty much pencil and paper. And most of the interlocking stuff and all the words you had to learn were in your head, or you could buy like sources, little like dictionaries that had letters sorted on their second letter, like, it would have all the letters, all the words that had, like, blank B, blank, blank, blank, R blank or something.

Nowadays, computer software lets you avoid all of that. So, you can actually be like a person off the streets starting to solve puzzles. The trouble is that the word lists that go along with these software packages are often full of the worst, drecky stuff in the world. So you have to go through and window out all of these crud that's in these word lists, and then at the same time adding really good stuff like gas guzzler and, you know, syntax and stuff like that.

You have to go in and pretty much rebuild these word lists on your own, so that after you'd done this for a couple of years and you have carpal tunnel syndrome, now you can pretty much set up a grid. And there's something called auto-fill, and you can actually fill a corner of a puzzle without actually doing it yourself. The computer will do it for you.

And then you can kind of look at it and say, well, this word stinks or that word stinks, and you can sort of say, fill it again. Or you can sort of put in your theme answers and it will fill little sections for you, and all the while that you're doing this, you're sort of doing the human angle, which is to sort of decide, well, is this corner really full of crud or is it full of good words?

CONAN: Hmm-hmm.

Mr. REAGLE: If you have gizmo, and you know, Lionel Barrymore or something in - up in there. Then, you know, those are pretty chunky good words. If it has like Asnee Evee(ph), a famous ancient slave, or even the word nee, N-E-E; nee, which means born.

CONAN: Hmm-hmm.

Mr. REAGLE: These are really crummy words that you want to get out of the puzzles. Nowadays in puzzles, we want the most colorful, interesting words we can get. We're really trying to get rid of all the three-toed sleuths and the Malayan canoes, you know, and the Babylonian god of dirt…

CONAN: But I know all of those words…

Mr. REAGLE: I know you do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: In fact, these are the words that show up every time we see a crossword article. You know, what's a four-letter word for Babylonian, you know…

CONAN: Stop right there, Merl.

Mr. REAGLE: Yeah, right. But I mean, nowadays, computers really have helped a great deal for most beginning constructors because they really do help the process go faster.

CONAN: Would that suggest you begin with the answers rather than with the clues?

Mr. REAGLE: Yes, with - well, especially if you're making a theme puzzle, if the puzzle is about something. I mean, if it's like - I did a puzzle once about famous one-named people that you've never heard of, like Nostrildamus(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: And so — and the clue for that would be something like, you know…

CONAN: A man with a nose for news. Yeah.

Mr. REAGLE: No. A French guy who said I can smell the future.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: All right. So, you have a whole theme of things like this one-named people clonefucious(ph) and things like that. Well, you put all the theme answers in first, and they're kind of separated so that, you know, you can put the incidental words, which is called the fill all around it.

And we have all the usual rules about, you know, only one-sixteenth of the grid can be black squares, and there's lots of - there are symmetry rules and connecting rules and all that kind of stuff. But once you've got all that done and you've got the theme answers in there, now you can just sort of fill the rest of the puzzle up with incidental words. Hopefully, the most interesting words you can think of, the best you can do.

CONAN: Every once in a while, you'll still end up with Asian nurse. Okay.

Mr. REAGLE: Ama. Yes.

CONAN: Spencer, thanks very much for the call.

SPENCER: Thanks.

CONAN: We're speaking with Merl Reagle, the crossword puzzle creator and my co-star in the film "Word Play." He's joining us from Tampa and his syndicated Sunday puzzle will now be featured by The Washington Post syndicate including in Washington D.C. in The Washington Post.

If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go to Nathan(ph), Nathan from Detroit. And we're running into a series of people whose names are in this combination. I've bet you've never heard of guys and dolls, have you, Nathan?

NATHAN (Caller): Aha, I love that play. I want to change my name actually.

CONAN: Yeah, I get a few barbarian jokes in my line of work, too. But go ahead.

NATHAN: Two things here really quick. First, I got a puzzle here for you guys. What do you call a nation obsessed with Mexico's favorite export beer?

Mr. REAGLE: Alienation.

CONAN: Coronation.

Mr. REAGLE: Alienation - oh, coronation.

NATHAN: Coronation. Corona is right in there.

Mr. REAGLE: Oh, beer.

CONAN: A-ha.

NATHAN: So, if you've - this is unique to me but my friend invented a game, and it's very simple. He called it word play ball-bearing. And if you take the name apart, it explains how to play the game. You start out with a word play, which is a two-word phrase…

Mr. REAGLE: Oh god, you have to mix something together.

NATHAN: …in the middle there, you have play ball, and at the end, it's ball-bearing, and you just go back and forth with your friends, taking the last word there and then making another two-word phrase with it. It's really fun.

CONAN: Hmm.

NATHAN: And it's so simple, wordplay ball-bearing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: Got you.

CONAN: Just dead simple, Nathan. We'll be looking for the longest-running, floating crap game, okay?

NATHAN: Yeah.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Here is an e-mail we have from Elizabeth(ph) in Hercules, California. Again - anyway, I watch my husband fill in the little boxes every Sunday with The New York Times magazine. After he mumbles the question out loud, I never get one answer. What advice would you give to one who can't even get started thinking in the way one needs to answer questions?

Mr. REAGLE: Well, you can't be that person. You have to be born a sponge head. You have to be born a person who has sopped up useless information for years with no place to put it. So, it's like, that's why a "Trivial Pursuit" was such a big hit. That's why people watch "Jeopardy," I mean, other than to watch, you know, people get things wrong. But I mean…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. REAGLE: Generally, people have certain kinds of brains where they've just this huge amount of information that there's no place to put it except, where else, but in a crossword puzzle. So, if you're not that kind of person, you can't, like, automatically become it.

CONAN: Let's see we can go to Russ(ph). Russ, with us from Kansas City.

RUSS (Caller): Hey there.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RUSS: Well, back when I was, you know, mid-70s, I was in grade school, and I designed crossword puzzles, one of which was eventually published in the Scholastic magazine.

CONAN: Wow.

RUSS: And I used Scrabble sets as the tool of choice. Take a couple of (unintelligible) Scrabble sets and what's left is (unintelligible) they had a grid there. It was an excellent way, you know, to come up with angularly, you know, diagonally symmetrical crossword puzzles that look much better than the ones the other kids submitted, which look like actual Scrabble games. And that was the tool of choice. There would be themes like technology or nuclear engineering, electronics or something like that. And they finally believed me when I said I wasn't an adult and actually published.

CONAN: Huh.

Mr. REAGLE: Again low-tech, but still it's — yeah…

RUSS: But…

Mr. REAGLE: And I've heard that done.

RUSS: It's much more effective than pencil on paper but…

Mr. REAGLE: That's true.

RUSS: …what's the point if you had a computer.

Mr. REAGLE: That's true. I erase a lot. That's true. I mean, I have to start a puzzle six times before it was actually launched. That's true.

RUSS: Well, my penmanship is abominable, so if someone else would made me do the tiles that also helps. I could actually read my own work.

Mr. REAGLE: Okay. I'm giving a puzzle, can I?

CONAN: Go ahead and give him a puzzle.

RUSS: Sure, please. I would like that.

Mr. REAGLE: Here's one. What do you call a nation that's obsessed with safe-sex purchases made of latex?

RUSS: Could you repeat the question?

Mr. REAGLE: Oh, I'd love to. What do you call a nation that's obsessed with safe-sex purchases made of latex?

RUSS: I heard safe sex purchases made of latex, which makes absolutely no sense.

Mr. REAGLE: Safe sex, safe sex.

CONAN: Safe sex is what we're looking for. Anyway, Merl, why don't you just give him the answer?

Mr. REAGLE: Condomnation.

RUSS: Oh, okay. Now, I know what's your question actually was. Okay, sorry about that.

CONAN: That's okay.

Mr. REAGLE: That's okay.

CONAN: That's all right.

RUSS: Puzzles are wonderful thing except…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: That's except they kind of — aren't exactly clear all the time.

RUSS: Lower fidelity. Low fidelity

CONAN: Thank you very much, Russ.

Here is another challenge for you. This is from Dean in Portland, Oregon. What do you call a heavily armored nation?

(Singing) Do, do, do, do, do, do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGLE: I have no idea. A heavily armored nation?

CONAN: Canonnation, he says, is the answer.

Mr. REAGLE: Was it canonization?

CONAN: Canon - canonnation. You can canonize someone.

Mr. REAGLE: I know, but isn't it the noun-form canonization?

CONAN: Well, yeah. But that was - I didn't say he was right, I just said it was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see we can get a - here is D.J.(ph), D.J. calling us from Sycamore in Illinois.

D.J. (Caller): Hi. I've got one for you.

Mr. REAGLE: Go ahead.

D.J.: What's the best kind of nation from an NPR listener?

Mr. REAGLE: Donation.

D.J.: Donation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I was - I thought you were going from what's the country's favorite ethnic food.

D.J.: That would be TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: That would be Taconation. Absolutely right.

Mr. REAGLE: Well, donation is great because dough means money, too. So…

CONAN: There you go.

D.J.: And I'll be working at the local WNIJ, NPR station next week when we have our fund drive.

CONAN: Your parents must be so proud.

D.J.: They would.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Good luck, D.J. Thanks very much.

D.J.: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And, Merl, good luck with your new syndication. It starts Sunday in The Washington Post, and how many other newspapers?

Mr. REAGLE: Well, I'm already in about 20 but that adds 40 more, 40 more.

CONAN: Well, if you think you're up for it, you can check out Merl Reagle's puzzles in a Sunday paper near you. The Washington Post syndicate will now carry his crossword puzzles.

And Merl, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. REAGLE: My pleasure.

CONAN: Ira Flatow is here tomorrow with SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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